Being a doctor is now the most desired career in the eyes of young Koreans and their parents.
The early admissions results for the 2024 school year showed the average competition rate of medical schools at 10 major universities was 46 to 1. For Inha University College of Medicine's essay-based admission, the competition rate was a jaw-dropping 661 to 1.
In contrast, the competition rate for high-tech departments, including semiconductor majors, averaged 16.5 to 1. This was lower than the average of other natural science majors (19.2 to 1).
Furthermore, three in 10 successful candidates for regular admissions at the nation's three most prestigious universities, called "SKY" (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei), passed on enrollment offers. They appeared to shift to medical schools. Some freshmen at the SKY universities even moved to the medical colleges of nameless provincial universities.
Welcome to the paradise of doctors and patients!
However, a closer look reveals things are far from what they seem. Above all, many of these would-be doctors are not aspiring to be Hippocrates. The most popular specialties among medical residents are dermatology, ophthalmology, and cosmetic surgery. They avoid internal medicine, surgery, ob-gyn, and pediatrics, which are essential but challenging and financially less rewarding. Physicians want easier, freer, and more profitable jobs.
Yet, Korean doctors already earn more than their peers in rich countries. According to data, salaried doctors earned $192,749 (255 million won) in 2020 on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. It was the highest among 28 OECD countries and 70 percent more than their average of $112,832. It is little wonder some parents send their fourth graders to private academies in southern Seoul to prepare for medical school exams. The medical school enrollment quota has been fixed at 3,058 for 17 years.
The concentration of talent in medical schools causes serious adverse effects on fostering a balanced workforce. Medical colleges absorb the top 0.2 percent of high school students, but their global rankings remain poor. Despite its excellent students, the Seoul National University College of Medicine ranks 37th while its chemical engineering department takes 18th place. One reason is their focus on clinical fields while neglecting research. The waste of talent also leads to a lack of top-level students in IT, airspace and other futuristic areas.
What the government should do is clear.
It must increase the number of doctors. Children needing emergency care cannot find doctors, while essential physicians die of overwork. Some estimate there will be a shortage of 27,000 doctors by 2035. Doctors, of course, refute it, calling for the better allocation of existing ones while citing the nation's declining population. They may be right, to an extent. When the fourth graders become doctors, generative AI will diagnose diseases, and robots will perform surgeries. However, Korea can't wait another 20 years, letting the black hole suck up all talent until then.
The previous government tried to increase the medical school quota by 4,000 over 10 years. It failed in the face of doctors' strikes. The incumbent administration must push it through, even setting the annual target far higher than before. Admitting 400 more students a year will only fan the medical school craze. Adding about 1,000 will cool it. Nobody will oppose Korea having a sufficient supply of doctors in decades to come; except some physicians.
We remain hopeful because President Yoon Suk Yeol appears to be better than his predecessor in at least one area ― breaking cartels, be they unionists or scientists. If Yoon breaks the "medical cartel" and expands medical students, it will be his most remarkable ― if not only ― legacy.
Yoon must also raise the income of high-tech workers, researchers, and scientists and improve their research infrastructure. The U.S. and China are competing to foster more talent in cutting-edge sectors. Biopharma experts, not medical doctors, are the answer. Korea has no industrial future with the current talent cultivation and reward system.
The president should drop his "fiscal health" slogan and revive the R&D outlays he reduced under the pretext of breaking up cartels.
If the president wants to stick to his anticartel campaign, he must at least discern who constitutes cartels ― plastic surgeons or scientific explorers.