800 million KRW in seven months. In Korea, where the position of a doctor holds high prestige in society, it is pretty unbelievable for a doctor to be in debt. In the winter of 2013, however, Dr. Cook-Jong Lee of Ajou University Hospital found himself 800 million KRW in debt after paying for multiple helicopter transportation fees for emergency patients in unreachable areas. 800 million KRW. To some, this amount of money would only be heard of as prize money in some lottery. To Dr. Lee and other doctors in trauma centers, however, this amount of money sheds light on a more grim side of the Korean medical system that is in desperate need of attention and solution.
With the introduction of President Jae-in Moon into the Korean political picture, many changes have been brought about the Korean political and social systems. Along with the many changes he made in a multitude of areas, one of the areas that Moon asked for pressing change was the medical branch. However, even before Moon’s reign, the Korean medical system has been an area in society that never received as much attention as it deserved; well, at least the amount of critical attention it deserved. When talking about the Korean medical system, it has always been rather awkward to critically dissect the shortcomings and problems of the system due to its high regard in Korean society.
Samsung Hospital, Seoul National University Hospital, and Asan Hospital are the “big three” hospitals that are of high standing in Korean society. They are the brand-name hospitals that come to mind when asked about hospitals that have high infrastructure in terms of medical standards. High infrastructure would mean doctors with prestigious backgrounds in terms of their universities, hospitals with up-to-date technology, and hospitals that can host many patients at one time. Currently, the biggest problem that these hospitals face is the patient crowding that occurs.
The status quo shows that this problem can be broken down into three levels. And these levels, quite interestingly, are intertwined to create a domino effect on each other. On the first level, the amount of financial support that hospitals in Korea get is unequally distributed and the standard under which monetary distributions occur is rather unclear and quite skewed. On the second level, due to the financial support and the grounds that these hospitals take in the Korean public, patients tend to be much more inclined to go to these big name hospitals when given the choice. On the third and last level, one of the clearer trends that can be seen recently is the lack of the Korean public’s faith in next-generation technology. Recently, robots in the field of medicine and various fields of society have been taking the place of humans. The medical field is no exception, with the introduction of the surgical robot da Vinci and the efforts to improve Watson when it comes to examining patients, the medical field is becoming more and more mechanized. However, hospital visits show that telemedicine is not being applied to practical usage as much and this can be blamed on the lack of trust that patients have on the technology. Although a set and stone solution to the monetary issues can not be said as a layman looking into this issue as a third point perspective, I believe there are definite improvements that can be made in the medical system that we have today.
On a different facet, the Korean medical system also shows gaping holes with regards to logistical and political issues in trauma centers. The recent turn of events surrounding the medical care received by the North Korean defected soldier brought the harsh conditions of the trauma centers in Korean hospitals back into focus. The doctor in charge of the surgery of the soldier was Dr. Cook-Jong Lee, well known for his past sacrifices in the field of medicine as well as his outspoken personality in regards to the harsh conditions of the Korean medical system. Dr. Lee expressed his disappointment at the lack of effort by the Korean government to improve the trauma centers of Korea. One of Lee’s points was to start from the root and build an established trauma center in the “big-name” college hospitals that not only are underdeveloped in trauma centers but also do not have them to start with.
The lack of trauma centers have often caused those of several hospitals to be overcrowded with patients. Furthermore, the lack of financial support in these trauma centers have created a very disturbing trend where hospitals would often be reluctant to spend large sums of money to save patients that could only be accessed through expensive means of transportation. This has caused doctors like Lee to spend personal money for transportation fees and hospitals to filter certain patients they would take care of and some they would not.
At its core, any hospital should be a place where anyone can go to and receive top-tier medical service. The brand names of these hospitals should not cause an unequal distribution of financial support. Furthermore, reforms in the medical logistics need to be made for an improvement in medical service.