Hardliners in doctors’ strike still refusing to work, only 14% of candidates to take medical licensing exam

Posted on : 2020-09-08 17:32 KST Modified on : 2020-09-08 17:32 KST
KIRA rejects agreement with KMA, citing lack of restitution measures
A patient in front of Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital, where medical residents and interns are on strike, on Sept. 7. (Yonhap News)
A patient in front of Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital, where medical residents and interns are on strike, on Sept. 7. (Yonhap News)

On Sept. 4, the administration and ruling Democratic Party reached an agreement with the Korea Medical Association (KMA) to restart the debate over policies such as increasing medical school admission quotas and postpone applications for the national medical licensing exam by another two days -- but just 14% of students have decided to take the exam. Physician groups are now up in arms over the administration and ruling party’s insistence that any additional extension is out of the question.

The chaos at healthcare institutions appears poised to continue for the time being, with hardline residents and trainee doctors decrying the “lack of restitution plans for those refusing to sit for the exam” and the leadership of the Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA) resigning en masse after previously proposing a return to work on Sept. 8.

Speaking at a regular briefing of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCHQ) on Sept. 7, Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) Spokesperson Son Young-rae said, “The number of people who have applied for the medical licensing exam totals 446 out of 3,172 candidates, which means that 14% are scheduled to sit for the test.” The deadline for applications to take the exam had initially been the end of August, but the administration granted two extensions and continued accepting them through 12 am on Sept. 6. But the application rate among medical students was only around four percentage points higher than calculated in late August.

“We are not considering another extension or the acceptance of additional applications,” Son said.

“This is a matter of law and principle, and we concluded that [accepting additional applications] would raise issues of violating equity in terms of qualifications with many other professions that also take national examinations,” he explained.

The KMA, which drafted the agreement text with the ruling party, objected to the stance, arguing that an “agreement without restitution measures is meaningless.” In a statement that day, the KMA said, “The Democratic Party and [the current] administration should bear in mind that our agreement with them on Sept. 4 was predicated on the assumption of complete protections and restitution for student and physician members, including medical students and residents.”

“If that assumption is undermined, then the agreement no longer holds any meaning,” it continued.

Despite the Moon administration’s attempts to extend an olive branch to residents and medical students, they insisted on going ahead with their strike, maintaining that there had been “no protections for fourth-year regular course students who refused to sit for the national examination.” In a nearly two-hour online conference with all resident members streamed on YouTube on the afternoon of Sept. 7, Park Ji-hyun, spokesperson of KIRA’s emergency committee, proposed returning to hospitals as of 7 am on Sept. 8.

“As an official member group of the KMA, KIRA is obliged to temporarily suspend its strike in accordance with the agreement,” she explained.

KIRA leadership resigns

But in comments posted in the dialogue window for the online conference -- which had up to 8,600 participants at one point -- residents and medical students vocally objected, citing reasons such as the “lack of restitution plans for medical students who boycotted the national examination” and the “need to decide through voting by all residents on whether to suspend the strike.” Park ended up backing down and declaring her resignation.

“We attempted to take our chances with moderate and united collective action, and I will be stepping down as a gesture of responsibility for my own shortcomings in failing to reflect the views of all residents,” Park said.

“The entire leadership will be stepping down,” she added.

Residents in the field began work on gathering opinions at individual hospitals on whether to continue or suspend the strike. At some hospitals, the decision had been made to have residents and physicians return to work on Sept. 8. But the leadership vacuum means that no consistent policies are likely to be forthcoming at the physician group level.

“This is a situation where we can’t predict anything, so all we can do is wait for the residents to come back,” said an official at one major hospital in Seoul.

“For now, we’re going ahead with our [previously postponed] surgery and outpatient schedules,” the official added. A total of 72.8% residents and 19.2% physicians were found not to have reported to work that day.

By Kim Min-je, Choi Ha-yan, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters

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

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