(2nd LD) Health minister vows to ‘unwaveringly’ push for medical reform

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong renewed his vow to "unwaveringly" accomplish medical reform Thursday, although a mass walkout by trainee doctors in protest of the reform has crippled public health services for about two months. The pledge came amid concerns that the government's medical reform drive may lose steam following the ruling party's crushing defeat in last week's parliamentary elections. About 12,000 trainee doctors have left their worksites since Feb. 20 in the walkout against the government's push to hike the annual enrollment of medical students by 2,000 starting next year. "The medical reform is essential to protect the lives and health of the people, to enhance local and essential medical services, and to prepare for future demand," Cho said at a government response meeting. "We plan to gather reasonable opinions from different sectors and carry out the reform unwaveringly," the minister said. To carry out the reform, the government plans to increase the number of physician assistant (PA) nu rses to make up for the shortage of doctors amid their prolonged walkout, a move that will likely be met with objection by a doctors' association. In South Korea, PAs refer to skilled nurses who assist doctors in carrying out operations and procedures, and participate in the development of treatment plans and even the prescription of medication. If the government increases the number of PAs, they are expected to take over part of the duties of junior doctors in medical institutions. Some media reports have said the parliamentary election outcome may affect the medical reform by the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol because his ruling People Power Party suffered a crushing defeat on April 10. Since the election defeat, Yoon has vowed to accelerate the implementation of policies that are helpful to the people while filling any gaps by collecting public opinion through town halls. He indicated, however, that he has no intention of backing down from his plans to increase admissions at medical schools. L ater in the day, the chiefs of the country's six universities located in the noncapital region asked the government to allow them to voluntarily adjust the number of new medical school students within the 50 to 100 percent range of the enrollment quota given to them for next year. The universities are Gangwon National University, Kyungpook National University, Gyeongsang National University, Chungnam National University, Chungbuk National University and Jeju National University. If the government accepts their request and other schools follow suit, the number of additional medical school admission seats for next year could fall to as low as the 1,000s, from the government's initial plan to raise the quota by 2,000. In March, the government allocated an additional 2,000 medical school admission seats to universities across the nation. It distributed 82 percent of the quota to 27 universities outside the broader capital region. The remaining 18 percent were allocated to five medical schools located in Gyeon ggi Province surrounding Seoul and the western port city of Incheon, with no allocation made for schools within Seoul. The government has said the medical reforms are essential to brace for the country's fast-aging population, a shortage of physicians in rural areas and essential but low-paying specialties, like pediatrics and emergency departments. It aims to fill an expected shortfall of 15,000 doctors by 2035. In response, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), the country's biggest lobby group for doctors, argues the government plan won't fix fundamental problems in the medical system, including doctor shortages in fields seen as lower paying and a concentration of doctors in urban areas. Source: Yonhap News Agency