South Korea’s Coronavirus Response Under Pressure as Doctors Plan Strike
| le 13 August 2020
About a quarter of South Korea’s 33,000 hospitals and clinics will close their doors on Friday
By Dasl Yoon – The Wall Street Journal
South Korea’s largest physicians group plans to strike on Friday, protesting a government proposal to increase the number of doctors after the country suffered staffing shortages when coronavirus cases surged earlier this year.
About a quarter of South Korea’s 33,000 hospitals and clinics will close their doors Friday. The one-day walkout is being organized by the Korean Medical Association, a trade group that represents 130,000 doctors. The association has called for the government to retract a variety of overhauls it unveiled last month.
The plan to raise the nation’s annual 3,000-person quota on medical students to 3,400 has drawn the most criticism.
The strike threatens South Korea’s response to the coronavirus as the country’s locally transmitted cases hit 47 on Thursday, the highest daily count in more than a month. In total, South Korea has reported 14,770 cases of infection.
In response to the planned strike, the South Korean government has asked hospitals that are remaining open to extend their consultation hours through the weekend. In a Thursday address, Park Neung-hoo, the country’s health minister, apologized for the disruption and called for the doctors’ group to cancel the strike.
“The issue surrounding the medical quota issue should be discussed with the government,” Mr. Park said. “Patients have nothing to do with it.”
In part to better prepare itself against another outbreak, the national government unveiled a series of proposals last month. In addition to calling for more doctors, the new 10-year-policy—set to start in 2022—includes plans to create public medical schools. The government also pushed to green light telemedicine services and allow traditional Korean medicines to be covered by the national insurance plan.
The Korean Medical Association, which often takes outspoken stances on government policy, lambasted the proposals as “the four evil policies.” It didn’t rule out future walkouts.
“South Korea has been exemplary in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the hard labor and sacrifice provided by the physicians. Our efforts have been answered with a series of policies that will drive us off a cliff,” the association said this week.
South Korea has 2.4 doctors per 1,000 people, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is well below the OECD average of 3.4 doctors per 1,000 people, though it is comparable to the situation in the U.S.
The national government, which doesn’t require the Korean Medical Association’s approval to enact the reforms, said its move will address a shortage of doctors outside the Seoul metropolitan area—where roughly half of the country’s 52 million residents live. The country’s most virus-stricken area, near the city of Daegu, has less than half of the doctors—relative to the population—as Seoul. The reforms would also increase the number of infectious-disease specialists, which currently stands at around 280.
The South Korean government plans to offer full scholarships for three-quarters of the additional medical students in exchange for serving in rural provinces for 10 years.
The Korean Medical Association argues that doctors will eventually relocate to the Seoul metropolitan area and the current pipeline for doctors is sufficient due to the country’s projected population declines. South Korea has one of the world’s lowest birth rates and its population is expected to fall to 39 million by 2067 from about 52 million at present.
The new plan will cost the government about $250,000 to train a doctor, meaning the new policy will require more than $800 million over the decade, the Korean Medical Association said. Instead, that government support should go to current doctors and health care facilities, it said.
Like many other countries, South Korea suffered from a shortage of medical staff in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of volunteer doctors and nurses were dispatched to Daegu when the city reported hundreds of daily infections in late February.
Last week, about 12,000 medical students demanded that the extra funding be spent on improving the salaries of physician trainees, which would encourage doctors to move to rural areas.
About three-fifths of South Koreans approve of the government’s proposal, according to Realmeter, a Seoul-based research firm. The Korean Hospital Association, a trade group for hospital workers, has backed the government’s proposals.
“The biggest problem is that the government did not consult the medical community before announcing its plans,” said Kim Dae-ha, a spokesman from the Korean Medical Association. “The government says they want to hold discussions but ultimately they have no intention to take back its proposal.”