With South Korea confronting a fast-spreading coronavirus second wave that is stretching its health system, the government has reversed a previous hardline position to allow a second chance for this year’s crop of medical students to sit their medical licensing exams.
Without the U-turn, which came on 31 December after months of lobbying by doctors’ groups amid adamant refusals by the government, South Korea would have 2,700 fewer doctors this year. Some 85% of final-year medical students boycotted the practical medical licensing exam in September 2020.
With the government refusing to allow them to take the exam later, just 365 medical students earned medical licences last month.
Korea’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said during a press briefing on 31 December that the practical test for the licensing exam would be held again in late January because of an anticipated shortage of medical personnel next year.
“It is important to prevent a shortage of doctors, in order to implement and improve public health services without disruption, secure enough doctors in critical fields and prevent a medical service vacuum in rural areas,” said Lee Gi-il, director of the health care policies office at the health ministry at an end-of-year briefing. Many new doctors serve in public hospitals and clinics instead of enlisting for compulsory military service.
“Because public health doctors serve in public medical institutions and remote areas, people’s lives and safety are at stake unless this problem is resolved,” Lee said at the briefing. “The government gave it serious consideration and decided to offer them an opportunity next year.”
South Korea, which, compared to other countries, successfully contained the first COVID-19 wave in March, has seen a huge surge in cases in the past three months at a speed outstripping many countries in Asia and Europe. The number of cases rose from 23,106 on 21 September to 61,769 by 1 January this year, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the United States. In Asia, only Japan and Malaysia outpaced South Korea in the past weeks.
Exam to be held twice in 2021
The annual medical licensing exam will be held twice this year as a total of 6,000 medical students are expected to take the exams, the ministry said.
The students were left out in the cold as thousands of doctors went on strike for almost three weeks in August and early September 2020 to protest against proposed government medical reforms including expansion of places and measures to improve health in rural areas.
In September the strike was called off when the Korean Medical Association, the country’s largest doctors’ organisation with more than 130,000 members, agreed to end the protests if the Ministry of Health suspended the reforms until the coronavirus crisis was over.
Qualified doctors returned to work but medical students continued to protest and final-year students boycotted the state medical licensing exam. Just 423 out of 3,172 final year students sat the exam and 365 passed.
Students said their concerns about conditions and hours of work had not been adequately reflected in the agreement between government and doctors that ended the strike.
Though students later said they were willing to take the practical test held in September, the government refused to allow them to sit the exam, claiming that public opinion was in the government’s favour and saying that the exam registration deadline had been postponed twice during the strike.
“I have been volunteering in my university hospital alongside the younger medical students, but the government was refusing to license us despite four years of studies and practical training,” said a medical student in Busan who gave her name only as Kang.
The government had refused to negotiate with student groups, she said, but instead had suggested they would deploy specialist nurses. “But nurses are already overburdened,” she pointed out.
The government insisted the students would have to regain “public sympathy”, but students said this was a smokescreen for a hardline stance scapegoating them. Kang described the government’s earlier stance as “vindictive” after the medical profession had opposed its policies.
In recent months, associations representing the country’s main general hospitals have called on the government to allow students from some 40 medical schools across the country to take the licensing exam, warning of a shortfall of doctors.
While higher ranked hospitals were unlikely to be affected, the shortage would particularly hit small hospitals in non-metropolitan areas and lead to delays in providing care for patients, they said.
The health ministry’s Lee said the decision to hold the exam was to ensure the government can carry out public health policies as planned, strengthen cooperation with the medical sector and better support vulnerable populations.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun claimed in a radio interview earlier this month that the government had noticed public opinion “easing” toward medical students.
But opposition politicians said the alternative would have been to call out army physicians.