Aging Korea Faces Crisis in Medical Services

  • By Kim Kyung-eun, Choi Eun-kyung

    August 22, 2022 08:40

    More than 20 percent of Korea's population will be over 65 in two years' time, and doctors are aging apace, with some unpopular fields in dire need of fresh blood. 
    According to a study by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the average age of doctors in Korea rose from 43.8 in 2010 to 47.9 in 2020. In Seoul doctors are on average 45.7 years old, but in North Gyeongsang Province they already over 50. 
    That this is a problem especially in rural areas can be seen by that fact that the average age of doctors in Seoul increased by 2.4 years but in South Jeolla Province by a whopping seven years to 50.7.
    Some areas of medicine are literally dying out because medical students now shun because of difficulty or lack of lucrative opportunities.
    According to the Korean Society for Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, 60.8 percent of Korea's 1,161 thoracic surgeons are over 50. This year only 23 medical students chose to become thoracic surgeons, which fills just 35 percent of the needed numbers, while 436 practicing thoracic surgeons will retire within the next 10 years. 
    The number of thoracic surgeons declined 26 percent from 2011 to 2020 even though demand for their services surged. 
    The situation is no different in neurosurgery. About half the neurosurgeons who are capable of craniotomy are over 50, while a mere 10 percent are in their 30s.
    According to the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, the number of patients receiving surgery to treat brain aneurisms surged 45 percent from 2017 to 2021. They must be treated within three hours, requiring patients to be taken to the nearest hospital, but skilled surgeons work mostly in big hospitals that may be miles away. 
    The quota for medical students in Korea soared from 2,500 to 3,458 during the last 30 years even though the young population is dwindling, but the number of new surgeons being licensed per year fell from 220 to 140 over the same period. 
    That means, for example, that it will become difficult to find even surgeons to treat simple appendicitis 10 years from now. In North Chungcheong Province, there is only a single hospital that can handle intestinal surgery even though the region is home to 1.6 million people. 
    The head of one hospital in Seoul said, "More patients are in need of surgery, but if the aging of physicians continues, doctors will become increasingly tired and patients will have a tough time getting medical help 10 years from now." 
    The fields of anesthesiology and pain medicine have seen a large increase in students, but interest in anesthesiology for surgery has waned and hospitals are in desperate need of anesthesiologists. This has prompted some major hospitals to recruit retired professors in the field. 
    Doctors say the problem cannot be solved simply by opening state-run medical schools or expanding the number of doctors. They called on the government to come up with special measures to nurture surgeons and other essential medical experts.  
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