Health ministry pledges more support for trainee doctors amid protracted walkout

May 31, 2024

The health ministry said Friday it will provide more financial support for trainee doctors and begin a trial operation to reduce their working hours amid protracted walkouts prompted by a plan that boosted the number of medical students.

Deputy Health Minister Jun Byung-wang told reporters that the pilot program will decrease the continuous working hours for trainee doctors from the current 36 hours to approximately 24 to 30 hours.

“The new law reducing trainee doctors’ working hours will be implemented in February 2026,” Jun said, noting that the pilot program is designed to prepare for its full implementation.

The health ministry stated that the pilot program, which will run through April next year, will be implemented at 42 hospitals nationwide, with six of them starting the initiative Friday.

The government estimates that junior doctors currently work around 77.7 hours per week as of 2022, significantly higher than in other countries.

“South Korea is accelerating efforts to improve the working environment of trainee doctors,” Jun said. “The government plans to make an unprecedented expansion in terms of support for their training.”

About 12,000 trainee doctors have remained off the job since Feb. 20 in protest of the plan to raise the medical school admissions quota by 2,000, causing disruptions at general hospitals and emergency rooms.

Jun added that the health ministry’s policy of applying flexible measures for junior doctors participating in the walkout remains unchanged, but the specific actions will vary depending on the duration of their absence.

“Should they return, the government will review ways to help them complete their training on time,” he added.

The government effectively finalized the quota increase last week, with the Korean Council for University Education confirming next year’s admissions plan, marking the first such increase in 27 years.

Amid slim chances of dialogue between the government and the medical community, the Korea Medical Association (KMA), the largest doctors’ organization, held candlelight vigils the previous day, warning of a “full-fledged” protest against the reform plan in June.

In response, Jun said that any further collective actions causing inconvenience to the public would be “meaningless,” considering the medical school quota has already been finalized.