(LEAD) Yoon says doctors should not hold people’s lives, health hostage

SEOUL, President Yoon Suk Yeol urged young doctors Tuesday to call off their collective action against the government’s medical reform policy, saying their protest is taking the people’s lives and health hostage.

Yoon issued the call during a Cabinet meeting after more than 6,400 trainee doctors submitted their resignations and about 1,600 of them walked off the job to protest the government’s plan to increase admissions to medical schools.

“Trainee doctors who are key players in the medical field and medical school students who are key players in future medicine should not take collective action by taking the people’s lives and health hostage,” he said during the meeting at the presidential office, noting some surgeries for cancer patients have already been postponed.

“Along with national security and public safety, protecting the people’s lives and safety is the reason for the state’s existence and the most basic constitutional responsibility given to the government,” he said. “From that perspective, th
e state must manage medical resources effectively and protect the people’s lives and health. Doctors may not be public servants like soldiers or the police, but they must never collectively refuse to give medical treatment.”

Yoon said the government’s plan to increase the annual enrollment quota by 2,000 starting next year from the current 3,058 meets only the minimum and still falls “far short” of the required number.

He said demand for medical services is growing rapidly but supply is unable to catch up, while essential medical fields have seen a particularly sharp decline in the number of medical personnel, leading to a “collapse” of such services in rural areas. Essential medical fields typically refer to high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine, among other disciplines.

Yoon also sought to justify the reform by explaining the government met 28 times with doctors’ groups and explained its inevitability while offering to reduce legal risks from complaints of medical malpractice
and raise fees for essential medical services in rural areas.

He further built his case by citing the 2022 death of a nurse who collapsed at work and was unable to receive surgery due to a shortage of doctors.

“Despite such urgency of medical reform, no past government was able to offer a solution and nearly 30 years have passed,” he said.

Doctors’ groups have argued an increase in admissions will only lower the quality of medical education, but Yoon refuted the claim, saying the quota at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine and other key medical schools across the nation has halved from 40 years ago.

Doctors trained then are no less skilled than those educated now and also helped elevate the nation’s medicine to a world-class level, he said.

Meanwhile, Yoon again stressed his commitment to addressing the county’s low birth rate, noting the 2023 total fertility rate — the number of children expected to be born to a woman over her lifetime — will be announced in the coming days.

Last year, t
he rate fell to an all-time low of 0.78, well below the replacement level of 2.1 needed to keep the country’s population stable.

Yoon said the government should restructure existing policies on fighting the low birth rate and devise fundamental measures to encourage young people to have children, citing anxieties about child-rearing, jobs and housing.

Source: Yonhap News Agency