South Korean Doctors Seek to Avoid Same Fate as Lawyers

(Bloomberg) -- A push by South Korea’s leader for a quick end to a doctors’ walkout in protest of a plan to increase medical student numbers may be clouded by a similar move with law schools, which resulted in more lawyers and average salaries falling more than 20% over a decade.

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President Yoon Suk Yeol has called for talks to resolve the dispute that has gone on for more than a month and offered to be flexible in penalties for trainee doctors who have defied the government’s return-to-work order.

While a group representing medical professors responded Monday by saying they are willing to negotiate, doctors have not budged in their call for him to drop his plan to add 2,000 more spots at medical schools from next year from the current 3,058 before any talks.

The experience of lawyers may be a factor fueling the reluctance of doctors to join any discussions. A government move in 2009 that set up two dozen law schools resulted in the enrollment of about 2,000 students per year. The number of lawyers tripled after that, and pay levels took a beating, with the average income per year falling to 115 million won ($85,940) in 2021 from 152 million won in 2011, according to data provided by the Health and Welfare Ministry.

Meanwhile, doctors posted a 79.3% increase in average pay to 269 million won in the same period, the data showed.

“Doctors have seen what’s happened to lawyers and fear they’ll suffer the same thing,” Jeong Hyoung-Sun, a professor in the Division of Health Administration at Yonsei University, said. “They are kicking and screaming to avoid it.”

The government on Tuesday reiterated plans to add the medical seats with universities — most outside of the Seoul area — from next year. Yoon’s administration said the increase is the first in nearly three decades and is needed to fix a doctor shortage that ranks among the most acute in the developed world and to elevate the quality of medical services for the country’s rapidly aging population.

Yoon, a former prosecutor, has put a positive spin on the move that increased the number of lawyers, which he said in a speech last week helped the legal industry become bigger and more competitive.

But the doctors contend the government’s medical school enrollment plan won’t fix fundamental problems in the health-care system, which they say include a lack of specialists in certain fields, doctors being concentrated in urban areas and poor working conditions.

Almost all of South Korea’s some 13,000 trainee doctors, who play key roles in emergency medicine and surgeries, walked off the job from around Feb. 20. The labor action expanded this week as medical professors, many whom treat patients, began resigning in support of the walkout.

In a move that could increase friction, the country’s biggest lobby group for doctors, the Korean Medical Association, elected a new leader Tuesday who has demanded the plan for increasing enrollments be scrapped.

Labor groups for physicians have dismissed the idea the walkout is about wages.

Doctors in South Korea have some of the highest pay in the developed world compared to average wages, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

Doctors have better leverage than lawyers because their absence has more immediate and serious repercussions, said Jeong at Yonsei University. While surveys show the public is siding with Yoon in the plan to increase enrollment, the president will need to tread carefully as the prolonged walkout may be starting to wear on voters.

The country holds elections on April 10 in which Yoon’s conservative People Power Party is trying to wrest control of parliament from the progressive Democratic Party, which could end gridlock for the remainder of Yoon’s term that ends in 2027.

Since law schools opened, lawyers have become more accessible across South Korea, including in less-developed regions. But questions have risen over the quality of service while competition has become tougher in an increasingly winner-take-all market.

That’s what may be awaiting doctors, too, according to Kim Jong Ho, a professor of public administration at Kyung Hee University.

“If doctors increase, they won’t earn as much as they have,” Kim said. “Medical services will be more widely available, but there’s a catch: bad doctors may drive out good doctors, too.”

--With assistance from Jenny Lee and Brian Fowler.

(Updates with new leader elected at lobby group in paragraph 11.)

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