Don’t hold our public health hostage The Korean Medical Association (KMA) is once again threatening to abandon patient care. A council meeting between medical representatives and the government to discuss expanding medical school enrollment fell through in just 30 minutes last week, as doctors denied the results of a government survey related to the medical school quota. After surveying 40 medical schools, the Ministry of Health and Welfare determined that the quota could reasonably increase by 2,151 students for the 2025 school year. But KMA President Lee Pil-soo vowed a general strike, which would take 140,000 member doctors out of work, if the government were to push ahead with a quota increase. The doctors’ group can complain about the survey results. But doctors are most aware that there is currently dire understaffing for emergency and pediatric care. All university hospitals are running short of surgical backup doctors, as interns do not apply for surgery departments. Doctors must take responsibility for this serious medical crisis. Yet they turn to kneejerk resistance, and threats of a strike, to any talk of increasing the number of medical students. It is difficult to come up with the exact count of doctors that are needed. The collapse of medical services in provincial areas and shortage of professionals in essential fields may not be solved simply by an increase in staff. Still, doctors must meet with the government to find a reasonable solution. The public, after all, wants more doctors, and an abundance of data support them. Despite the growth in the demand for medical services as life expectancy increases, the medical school quota has been capped at 3,058 since 2006. There were only 2.6 working doctors per 1,000 Koreans as of 2021, sharply smaller than the 3.7 average for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries. Korea ranked 32nd out of 38 OECD members on the global talent competitiveness index, which measures the number of medical doctors per 10,000 citizens. Still, the KMA brushes aside these statistics. If they are indeed wrong, the group should find evidence to prove that. In 2020, the government under the Moon Jae-in presidency withdrew a plan to increase the medical school quota by 4,000 under the threat of a general strike by the KMA. The public supported doctors at the time, as they’d relied on their care under the spell of the pandemic. But the KMA could face strong backlash if it threatens a general strike again. A protest at the expense of public health could cause irreparable harm to doctors — as well as the public.

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