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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Inui

The South Korea Doctors Strike Drags On

nurses at the reception desk of Severance hospital in South Korea

South Korean hospitals have been forced to dramatically cut operations as doctors continue their strike against a recent government policy (Republic of Korea, Wikimedia Commons)

In the past couple of years, South Korean students have flocked to medical schools in pursuit of the high pay and status associated with the medical field. Yet, South Korea’s doctor-to-patient ratio is amongst the lowest in the developed world. One likely explanation is that medical students are primarily interested in easier and more financially rewarding fields, such as dermatology, ophthalmology, and cosmetic surgery, avoiding more demanding fields like surgery and internal medicine. As a result, especially with Korea’s rapidly aging population, the government has begun to sound the alarm about an impending shortage of doctors.

The Policy

In response to this trend, Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced a plan to increase the number of students admitted to medical schools by 2,000 per year. He claims this is the minimum increase needed to address the shortage of doctors in rural areas, the military, and low-paying professions like pediatrics and emergency rooms.

However, since the announcement in February, many Korean physicians and doctors’ groups have come out against the policy, claiming that universities will be unable to handle such a steep increase in students. Instead of simply generating more doctors who will go to the same high-paying professions, they claim that the government should focus instead on making understaffed professions more appealing by expanding protections against malpractice suits or increasing pay.

Some critics of the strike say the doctors are only worried about lower incomes in the future. “Public hospitals take up more than 50 percent of medical institutions in Western countries, so doctors welcome the decision to have more peers because it would reduce their workload, and they are still paid the same amount,” Jeong Hyoung-sun, a professor of health administration at Yonsei University. However, in Korea, where 94 percent of hospitals are privately owned, more doctors only means more competition.

The Strike

The doctors’ strike in protest of the proposed policy began on February 20, when more than 90 percent of the country’s 13,000 medical interns and residents went on strike. Although only a small fraction of the country’s 114,000 doctors, in some major hospitals, these trainee doctors make up 30-40 percent of the medical staff. On top of this, more than 50 percent of the country’s medical students filed for a leave of absence, and many recently graduated medical students declined internships. 

The following month, in solidarity with their students, many medical professors also announced that they would be cutting their hours in university training hospitals. “Increasing medical school admissions will not only ruin medical school education but cause our country’s healthcare system to collapse,” said Kim Chang-soo, the president of the Medical Professors Association of Korea.

In the wake of the growing doctor shortage, many nurses have been forced to pick up the slack, often illegally taking on responsibilities reserved for doctors, such as signing consent forms and dressing wounds. The Ministry of Health and Welfare was also forced to deploy military doctors and public health doctors to affected hospitals around the country. 

Still, many hospitals have been forced to cut operations. Samsung Medical Center and Severance Hospital at Yonsei University, two of the largest hospitals in the country, were forced to cut their operating schedules by 45-50 percent. Other major hospitals, including Seoul National University Hospital and Asan Medical Center, have begun accepting applications for unpaid leave after incurring financial losses exceeding 1 billion won ($762 thousand) per day.

According to the health ministry, there have been more than 200 complaints filed about medical delays related to the strike. Reportedly, C-sections and chemotherapy treatments have been delayed, and one woman who suffered a cardiac arrest died in the ambulance after being turned away from seven hospitals, all of which cited staffing shortages. 

The Government Response

After the initial strikes, the government announced it plans to suspend the licenses of doctors involved with the strike for a minimum of three months. Since then, the government has suspended the licenses of two senior doctors at the Korea Medical Association (KMA) involved in organizing the strike, investigated five other KMA senior officials, and begun the process of suspending the licenses of hundreds of other physicians and trainee doctors. 

The KMA has since vowed to protect doctors from the government’s legal actions, calling it an “unbelievable level of blackmail.” In a joint statement, professors from Seoul National University’s medical school added that “if the government takes unjustifiable actions against our students, we will also take measures against such legal threats.” Even the World Medical Association announced that it “strongly condemns the actions of the Korean government in attempting to stifle the voices of elected leaders within the Korean Medical Association.”

Even though most of the country supports Yoon’s plan, observers say that ordinary people are increasingly fed up with the doctor’s strike. Yoon has received calls, even from within his party, to make concessions as the president’s approval rating fell to just over 36 percent. After Yoon’s party suffered a crushing loss in the recent Parliamentary elections, the government announced on April 19 that it would slow down the plan to admit more students, only mandating an immediate increase of 1,000 students. Notably, medical schools would still be required to increase admissions by the full 2,000 by 2026. 

The KMA said Yoon’s plan must be abandoned entirely or they will not end the strike, saying the compromise policy “is not a fundamental solution.” However, many fear what the continuation of the strike could mean for the country. If neither side relents, medical students will be forced to repeat a year, senior doctors at hospitals will begin to resign, and the healthcare system could eventually collapse.

This is not the first time the government has attempted to increase the medical student quota. In 2020, former President Moon Jae-in pushed to increase the quota by 1,000 students, but in the wake of similar strikes during the COVID-19 pandemic, he was forced to concede the policy. Many feel President Yoon will face the same fate, but for now, it is a standoff between the country’s doctors and the government.


Sources & Further Reading


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