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Thousands of Doctors in South Korea Strike Over Government Plan to Train More Physicians

More than 9,000  trainee doctors across South Korea have tendered their resignations and over 8,000 have walked off the job this week, local authorities said, in the most recent shake-up to the country’s healthcare system.

They are protesting a government plan to expand the intake of medical students in a country that has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios for a major economy and relies on 13,000 trainee doctors to help keep its healthcare system running. Earlier this month, the government announced that it would add 2,000 slots to the yearly quota of medical students, up from 3,000 today.

South Korea has a highly privatized healthcare system and its doctors are among the best-paid in the world, with the average salary for a specialist at a hospital commanding $200,000 a year. Critics of the strike say doctors oppose more competition.

But doctors argue that an expanded quota would not address the shortages because they are confined to particular specialities, like emergency care, where pay is low and working conditions are poor. They also argue the plan would further burden hospitals and compromise the quality of medical services.

On Thursday, hundreds of doctors marched in Seoul and other cities and said they were not consulted about the government's quota expansion plan. The Korean Medical Association also threatened an “indefinite strike” if the government stuck to the plan.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo implored doctors to refrain from mass resignations, warning of the threat it would cause to public health. “This is something that takes the lives and health of the people hostage and must not happen,” Han said.

Health authorities then issued back-to-work orders for resigning trainee doctors and told hospitals to reject their resignations. It also ordered trainee doctors to submit their daily work logs and vowed to punish those who participate in the strike.

Hospitals on Tuesday reported delays and cancellations to medical care. An official at Severance Hospital in Seoul told Yonhap News Agency that their planned operations have been halved.

“We are deeply disappointed and concerned that the collective action by trainee doctors has led to a disruption in medical services,” vice health minister Park Min-soo said at a news briefing Tuesday. “We cannot give justification to the actions of the doctors leaving their patients behind to protest a policy despite knowing what the collective action could result in.”

In the days leading up to the strike, authorities announced a slew of emergency measures to deal with the impending shortage of doctors, including expanding telemedicine services, opening up military hospitals, and moving some patients to other clinics.

The government has suspended the medical licenses of two senior members of the Korea Medical Association and said that their licenses would be canceled if they were found to have instigated the strike. Police also said that they would consider arresting the leaders of the strike.

This is not the first time plans to increase the intake of medical students has led to a stand-off between doctors and the government. A 2020 proposal to raise medical school admissions by 4,000 students over 10 years triggered similar protests and a strike, which led to the shelving of the plan.

The public is generally supportive of the current plan, with a Gallup Korea poll last week seeing 76% of respondents reacting positively to the medical school quota expansion.

Contact us at letters@time.com.