Korean medical exam crisis sparks fears of doctor shortage

Vast majority of final-year students fail to take test to qualify as physicians 

November 13, 2020
Source: iStock

After months of protests over the future of medical education in South Korea, fewer than 15 per cent of eligible medical students took a licensing exam that would have allowed them to be practising physicians. The situation has sparked fears that the country could face a shortage of young doctors, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

Medical organisations reported that 2,700 out of 3,172 final-year medical students, or 86 per cent of the total cohort, did not take the clinical portion of the Korean medical licence examination, which ended on 10 November.

This was the result of a boycott in August and September, when medical students and professionals protested against a government proposal to build state medical schools and to increase medical admissions quotas. The critics were concerned that an already competitive field would be flooded with new applicants, even though the plans were to expand capacity over the next decade. 

Practising doctors ended their protest actions by early September, but the issue of the licensing exams for students was left unresolved.

The authorities, who had already postponed the practical part of the test twice, stood firm against students who had missed the application date, leading to the vast majority losing their chance to be doctors this year.

Medical organisations and the students parents’ have urged the authorities to be flexible in allowing for reapplications, according to the Korea Biomedical Review

“The students deserve another chance to take the exam not for their personal sake, but in order to ensure the stability of the country’s medical system and public safety,” the Korean Medical Association said in a statement, according to The Korea Times

Hospital heads have also issued public apologies on behalf of students, in the hope that the government might show leniency.

Meanwhile, calls to expand medical education continue. Members of a presidential healthcare committee, including Kim Yoon, a professor at Seoul National University, recommended that quotas for medical students be expanded if the country wanted to match the OECD average for doctors per capita by 2040, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Chang Kim, executive director of the Korean Association of Human Resource Development, told Times Higher Education that “the Korean people are likely to become victims of the fight between the two groups, while not receiving adequate medical services”.

“It is time for the government and the medical community to once again return to the negotiation table,” he said.

South Korea’s medical schools and hospitals have been lauded for their success in handling Covid-19, with fewer than 500 related deaths in the country so far. 

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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