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Prospect for dialogue grows as senior doctors welcome Yoon’s offer

Junior doctors unlikely to accept as they remain skeptical of government’s intention, observers say

By Park Jun-hee

Published : April 3, 2024 - 14:28

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An area for intern doctors at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap) An area for intern doctors at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap)

Eyes are on whether junior doctors would engage in talks with President Yoon Suk Yeol to seek a breakthrough in the ongoing medical standoff and the expansion plan, as senior doctors on Wednesday encouraged them to accept his offer of dialogue.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Korean Medical Association -- the country’s largest doctors’ group with some 140,000 members -- said it “gladly welcomes” the decision and “believes the possibility of talks is high.”

“(The KMA) welcomes the plan, as (we) proposed last week (during a regular press briefing session) that the president should directly meet with junior doctors,” it said in a statement.

The remarks come a day after Yoon said he was open to talking with trainee doctors and hearing their voices.

With signs of hope appearing on the horizon, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said during Wednesday’s government response meeting that the government is open to taking a more flexible approach to changing the medical school enrollment quota if a better option is proposed.

“The government’s policy is to always be open. If better opinions and reasonable grounds are presented, then (the policy) can change for the better,” Lee stressed, echoing Yoon’s address to the nation on Monday. Yoon called on doctors to come up with a unified proposal on an appropriate increase.

Lee also noted that the government will continue discussing health care policies and reform by establishing a special presidential committee on medical reform comprising the public and medical circles.

Observers, however, say trainee doctors are unlikely to change course, as they remain skeptical of the government’s sincerity in its willingness to negotiate the medical school quota hike, citing the government’s sudden shift in attitude.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Seoul Administrative Court dismissed an injunction request filed by a group of medical students and trainee doctors, a day after it rejected medical professors’ request to avert the planned hike.

In a show of protest, only 131 out of 3,068 intern doctors who were supposed to start internship training for the first half of this year had registered with the Council for Graduate Medical Training as of Tuesday at midnight, according to the Health Ministry on Wednesday. The rest had refused to start the next step in their training to become physicians.

The ministry has warned that those who fail to register for internships must start training in the latter half of the year or next March, urging them to make the right choice.

Though the junior doctor group remained silent, local reports have suggested they are also split regarding engaging in talks with Yoon. While some were skeptical of Yoon’s proposal for dialogue, others expressed optimism about the plan, saying that communication channels and opportunities with the government are needed to review the expansion plan, according to trainee doctors interviewed by Yonhap News Agency.

Meanwhile, senior medical professors have stepped in to push for negotiations between the two sides, as the walkout of medical professionals entered its seventh week.

A group of medical professors under the Medical Professors Association of Korea urged Park Dan, who heads the Korean Intern and Resident Association, to resolve the strife by talking with the president and not to turn down the offer of dialogue.

“Whether (you) like President Yoon Suk Yeol or not, he is the president of our country. ... Everyone can make mistakes when they have too much passion. Please try to make an effort to understand (the president’s) passion for a moment,” said Cho Yun-jung, a professor of laboratory medicine at Korea University Anam Hospital who doubles as the MPAK emergency committee’s public relations council chairperson, to reporters in an online press briefing Tuesday afternoon.

“If (you) understand his sincerity, talks can start. Patients are getting more anxious, and there is only one person in South Korea who can solve the problem: the president,” Cho noted.

Should the talks pan out, Cho also asked Yoon to embrace trainee doctors who walked off their jobs for five minutes as a gesture of reassurance, entailing that such a move would convey the president’s intentions more effectively than words.