South Korea to train more doctors in preparation for future epidemics

South Korea medical workers
Medical workers in protective gears walk into a hospital facility to treat coronavirus patients amid the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Daegu, South Korea.

South Korea will add 4,000 medical students over the next 10 years to swell the number of its doctors and strengthen the response to future public health crises, government and ruling party officials say.

Authorities flagged the need to train doctors for potential outbreaks of infectious disease worse than COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus, pointing to the risk of more frequent epidemics and limited numbers of beds for the sick.

To fill the gap, officials said they plan to step up admissions to medical schools using a combination of new quotas, incentives for students in less lucrative specialities and those who complete a decade of public health work in rural areas.

“We will increase the quota for medical students to add more personnel in specialized fields,” Kim Tae-nyeon, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said at a policy meeting on Thursday.

The plan is to boost medical school admissions by about 400 a year for the next decade, before returning to a quota of 3,058, which has stayed fixed since 2006.

The government said it would waive tuition and offer full scholarships to about 300 students in areas such as epidemiology, gynaecology or surgery, widely seen as unpopular in contrast with more lucrative plastic surgery and dermatology.

Authorities said South Korea’s 2018 ratio of 2.4 doctors for every 1,000 people fell short of an average of 3.5 for nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The Korean Medical Association (KMA) called the government’s plan unnecessary, however, saying it was a distraction from real problems in the public health system.

A survey of 27,000 of its members showed 95% opposed the plan, it said, since South Korea has no shortage of doctors. It also aired concern that the rural service requirement would violate students’ rights.

The National University Hospital Association welcomed the idea of more doctors, but expressed concern about the skewed distribution of doctors and medical facilities, with most hospitals centred on Seoul, the capital.

This week, health authorities warned that virus infections among arrivals from abroad could push new cases on Friday beyond 100 for the first daily tally in three digits since April.

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