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Court dismisses bid to halt S Korea healthcare reforms

Medical fraternity protested plans for more doctor training, leading to hospital chaos and treatment cancellations
Medical workers walk across a pedestrian crossing outside a hospital in Seoul on March 11.

Medical workers walk across a pedestrian crossing outside a hospital in Seoul on March 11. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 17, 2024 05:10 AM GMT
Updated: May 17, 2024 05:28 AM GMT

A Seoul court on May 16 rejected a request by doctors and medical students to stop a government plan to increase medical school quotas, as a months-long strike by junior medics drags on.

Thousands of medics stopped working on Feb. 20 to protest government plans to train more doctors, causing chaos in hospitals, and forcing cancellations of key treatments including chemo.

Citing shortages and a rapidly aging population, the government is seeking to train hundreds more doctors each year, prompting backlash from junior medics and students, who have taken the case to court to try and block the change.

An administrative court last month had already ruled in the government's favor, and the Seoul High Court on May 16 again dismissed the doctors' and students' request.

The application "was dismissed, as it was determined that they are not the direct parties affected by this case's disposition," the court said in a statement.

While the court acknowledged that medical students -- unlike trainee doctors or professors -- are eligible to make the request, it said that the increase in the medical school quota was a "critical foundation for the recovery of essential and regional medical care."

Lawyer Lee Byung-cheol, who represents the doctors and students, said his clients are appealing immediately to the Supreme Court.

"We hope the Supreme Court will make their decision before the end of this month before universities finalize their plans for the year 2025," lawyer Lee told AFP. "This case is in no way over".

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo thanked the court for its "wise" ruling, which he said enabled the government to overcome a "major hurdle" in pursuing the reform.

"The government, bolstered by the judiciary's wise decision, will swiftly finalise the procedures related to the 2025 university admissions to prevent any further confusion," Han said.

'Terrible changes' 

Junior doctors have refused to return to their hospitals, despite the health ministry offering last month to scale back proposed medical training reforms for the 2025 academic year.

The striking doctors however have rejected the offer, demanding instead that the plan to create more doctors -- which the government says is essential -- be scrapped entirely.

"The court did not listen to us doctors at all," said Joo Soo-ho, former head of the Korean Medical Association, South Korea's leading doctors' body.

"If the increase in medical schools marks the beginning of the terrible changes we have been warning about, it would be an irreversible shift," he told AFP.

He added that trainee doctors, who play a key role in emergency procedures and surgeries at general hospitals, are unlikely to return to work following the court ruling.

"Our healthcare system will not return to its former state but will instead rapidly deteriorate."

The reform plan is broadly popular with the public, and proponents of it say doctors are simply trying to safeguard their salaries and social status.

Patients suffering from severe illnesses expressed dismay at the doctors' plans to appeal.

"The thought of facing another lengthy judicial process is already causing patients to complain of extreme stress and anxiety," Kim Sung-ju, the head of the Korean Cancer Patients Rights Council, told AFP.

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