S. Korea to delay skills section of medical licensing exam by 1 week

Posted on : 2020-09-01 18:17 KST Modified on : 2020-09-01 18:17 KST
Government proposes talks to resolve physicians’ strike, but needs KIRA’s consent
Physicians protest the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s policies on medical schools in front of Kyungpook National University Hospital in Daegu on Aug. 31. (Yonhap News)
Physicians protest the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s policies on medical schools in front of Kyungpook National University Hospital in Daegu on Aug. 31. (Yonhap News)

The South Korean government has decided to delay the skills section of an upcoming medical licensing exam by one week, from Sept. 1 to Sept. 8. This represents a concession by the government, which has been battling with medical associations over expanding admission quotas at medical schools and establishing a public medical school; President Moon Jae-in himself promised that deliberations will be held in the government and the National Assembly. But the negotiations can’t move forward without the consent of the Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA), which continues to demand that the government shelve its proposed policy changes. This makes it unlikely that the doctors’ strike will be wrapped up anytime soon.

Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip broke the news in a hurriedly organized briefing on the afternoon of Aug. 31. “We’ve decided to delay [the skills section of] the Korea Medical Licensing Examination that was supposed to be held on Sept. 1 by one week. We were concerned about inflicting unnecessary harm on the future of many students, and we also took into consideration the obstacles this could present to hospitals’ medical capacity and public usage of medical services down the road,” Kim said.

Although nearly 90% of medical students had reportedly canceled their test registration, the government had said as late as Monday morning that it would go ahead with the test as planned to minimize harm to those who had studied to take it.

Prior to the briefing, Moon addressed the issue during a meeting with senior secretaries and aides at the Blue House. “After the COVID-19 situation has stabilized, it will be possible to discuss the issues on which everyone has expressed consensus, such as resolving the regional imbalance in medical services, boosting essential medical services, and expanding the government’s role in medical services, as well as the issues raised by the medical community, in deliberative bodies promised by the government and proposed by the National Assembly,” he said.

Compared to Moon’s harsh criticism of the strikes organized by medical associations, his most recent remarks shift the focus to the negotiations, a point that Kim Gang-lip echoed in his briefing later that day. “We’re asking KIRA to return to work, to place faith in the deliberations promised by the chair of the National Assembly’s Health and Welfare Committee, respected members of the medical community, and by President Moon himself,” Kim said.

The government had already given ground in a series of negotiations with KIRA and the Korea Medical Association (KMA), but the sudden decision to make another concession seems aimed at finding a way out of the physicians’ strike, which is growing more serious. As KIRA seeks to win public sympathy about the government’s back-to-work order and the criminal complaints the state is filing against disobedient doctors, an emergency action committee representing attending physicians sided with the trainees on Monday, demanding that “all bills related to medical policy should first be deliberated by a body in the National Assembly with representation for KIRA and the KMA and then put to a vote with the consent of the ruling and opposition parties.”

At the main branch of Seoul National University Hospital, Seoul Metropolitan Boramae Hospital, and Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, 895 residents and interns and 247 attending physicians submitted collective letters of resignation. Medical professors who support the young doctors’ walkout have also announced their first collective action, and professors in the surgery department at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital announced they would suspend outpatient treatment and operations for one day, on Sept. 7.

Amid the intensifying standoff, several respected members of the larger medical establishment, including medical school presidents and professors, promised to persuade students and trainees to return to hospitals and asked the government to delay the medical licensing exam, a request that the government accepted, according to the Blue House and the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW). Senior members of the medical community held back-to-back meetings with Health Minister Park Neung-hoo and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Monday and voiced their opinions about resolving the situation. MOHW agreed to hold working-level deliberations with KIRA on Sept. 1.

Percentage of doctors taking part in strike has increased from previous week

Following the government’s action, the ball is back in the court of the medical associations, but it doesn’t seem that the strike will be ending anytime soon. In a survey of 151 of the country’s 200 medical training organizations, MOHW found that 83.9% of trainees and 32.6% of attending physicians are refusing to work. The percentage of trainees taking part in the strike, now in its eleventh day, actually increased from the previous survey on Aug. 28, when it stood at 75.8%.

Shortly before the government announced it was delaying the licensing exam, Park Ji-hyun, chair of KIRA’s emergency action committee, released a statement that reiterated the group’s basic demands for the government to scrap its policy and start over from scratch.

“The government needs to withdraw the medical policy that it has advanced unilaterally, without deliberations with the medical community, and sit down with the KMA to restart the discussion,” Park said.

The KMA is also planning to launch its third walkout, which will be open ended, on Sept. 9. “We have finished preparations for providing legal counsel for all 10 medical trainees who are facing criminal complaints. I will defend and protect your medical licenses and your right to resist,” wrote Choi Dae-zip, president of the KMA, on his Facebook page on Monday.

The greatest victims of a suspension of medical service, of course, are those suffering from disease. On Monday, the Korea Leukemia Patients Organization and Korean Society of Type 1 Diabetes, along with four other patients’ organizations, sent an open letter to KIRA, proposing a meeting. “We hope that you will first return to the workplace and then negotiate with the government. Taking patients hostage for your collective action will not win the support of anyone,” the groups said.

By Kim Mi-na, Kim Min-je, and Seong Yeon-cheol, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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