Korea Suffers Shortage of Pediatricians, Surgeons

  • By Kim Kyung-eun, Ahn Jun-yong

    August 19, 2022 08:56

    Korea is well known for its world-leading medical coverage, but the country suffers a shortage of surgeons, obstetricians and pediatricians as many doctors specialize in more lucrative fields like plastic surgery. 
    Last month a nurse at Asan Medical Center died of a cerebral hemorrhage at work because no surgeon could be found on time. The incident served as a wake-up call revealing a crisis in essential medical services. 
    One danger area is thoracic surgeons, who specialize in the heart and lungs. From next year their numbers are expected to dwindle dramatically unless something is done. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, only 23 medical residents chose to become thoracic surgeons nationwide, resulting in an acquisition rate of just 35 percent of the needed numbers.
    Chung Eui-suk at the Korean Society for Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, said, "Until 1994, there were 57 residents a year who plumbed for thoracic surgery and until 2007 there were 47, but now only five hospitals in the country have managed to fill all resident positions while half of all hospitals have barely managed to fill one position." 
    "The biggest group of thoracic surgeons are in their 50s at 425, and they will retire in 15 years," Chung said. "But in an aging society we will see an increase in the need for heart and lung cancer surgery, and there are only 312 thoracic surgeons in their 40s and 142 in their 30s, so we don't know when the system will collapse." 
    Starting next year, retiring thoracic surgeons will outnumber fresh blood. 
    Pediatrics is suffering from an even more acute shortage. The acquisition rate for pediatricians plummeted from 80 percent as recently as 2019 to 27.5 percent this year. The decline is due to the waning popularity of the discipline as Koreans have fewer children. 
    The Chosun Ilbo interviewed 20 medical experts, and the common problem they pointed out was not a shortage in the overall number of doctors but a lack of specialists in difficult but less lucrative fields.
    This compounds the strain on existing specialists, which in turn discourages new entrants from following them into stressful fields. According to the Korean Pediatric Society, only 38.5 percent of 96 large hospitals in the country can afford to run pediatric emergency rooms around the clock, while a growing number of hospitals are closing down pediatric wards or only accepting patients in the daytime. 
    One medical professor said, "At this rate, we could see the pediatric care system become severely strained in two to three years." 
    The situation is the same in obstetrics. Hospitals are now only able to fill 60 to 70 percent of their quota while medical students see that the birthrate is low and the threat of malpractice lawsuits high, so they decamp to other pastures. 
    According to a 2019 survey by the Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 57 percent of obstetrics residents said they do not plan to pursue the discipline once they have their license. 
    The number of hospitals handling childbirths fell from 1,027 in 2007 to just 474 last year. The shortage is especially noticeable in areas outside Seoul, where it endangers the lives of pregnant women and their babies. 
    The Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology is calling on the government to shoulder any compensation in non-negligent medical accidents that occur during childbirth. 
    One doctor said, "According to law, general hospitals with 100 to 300 beds only need to open three of the four essential departments -- general medicine, surgery, pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology -- and many hospitals decide against obstetrics departments that can entail losses. We should make it mandatory for such hospitals to open all four departments." 
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