The questionable conditions, insular medical society, and the lack of financial support all converge at a keystone of the arch that is the Korean medical system — education. Despite the pristine image illuminating the Korean medical society, much paddling occurs under the surface to keep the reputation afloat. The brutal and elitist medical education system in Korea aids little in disassembling the rigid structure, and in fact instigates many issues currently in place.
It is often said that doctors are one of the most, if not the most, coveted jobs in Korean society. According to the “Education in Korea (2016)” report published by the Ministry of Education, nurses ranked second (5.0%) and doctors eighth (2.4%) by high school students for most wanted careers. Doctors especially saw a rise in ranks, as it had failed to place in top ten for high school students in 2015 and also rose from 4th to 3rd for both elementary and middle school students. And more than the students themselves are the parents, who value job and economic security, prompting them to guide their children towards the field.
Combined with such popularity and the highly specialized nature of the job, the path to becoming a medical professional is a privilege given to the top elites at each school who are admitted into a six-year program at Korean medical schools. Though the quota increases every semester, the competitiveness continues to climb: for Seoul National University, the ratio of applicants to admissions rose from 34.33 to 1 in 2016 to 34.91 to 1 in 2017, a frighteningly large upsurge. In line with the difficult entrance route, the community becomes exclusive and hierarchical.
The tipping effect of high-level workforce towards the medical professions creates vacancy for technical and STEM-related jobs crucial in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Many are propelled to pursue medical school for personal financial security, and the nation loses out on valuable human resources, resulting in a long-term repercussion for Korea’s development. With the overpopulation of certain hospitals as mentioned before, the surplus of doctors and nurses becomes a burden.
Even at KAIST, many students transfer from a STEM path to a medical school. In 2009, 63% of 350 KAIST students reported that they have thought about or are thinking about transferring to medical school or taking state examinations. The lower societal prestige in lieu of the workload and the government’s minimal infrastructural support were the top two reasons why many STEM students contemplated the option.
The administration’s education infrastructure propagates such imbalance. The academic focus causes students to prioritize university entrance over their career choices — many are encouraged to first get into a university with a promising major and plan their future afterwards. Realistically speaking, it is almost impossible to deviate from this pre-determined path, especially from something as diffcult to enter as the medical schools in Korea that require much dedication before and after application and admittance.
However, the imbalance aside, the biggest problem lies in the resulting repercussions deeply embedded in the medical society. Despite the quite expensive and lengthy process, or perhaps because of it, the conditions at the institutions suffer greatly and the number of cases of severe abuse at the top medical schools is abnormally high. The vertical power structure runs from professors to residents, and from residents to students — students recounted stories of upperclassmen throwing surgical knives during demonstrations; any movement resulted in immediate punishment and students were forced to drink from bathroom sinks at designated times. Residents also have direct authority to report on the students’ performance to the professor. The professors often let the problematic behaviors of the residents slide in order to maintain “order” and the hospital’s reputation.
However, residencies also harbor frequent occurrences of work overload and abuse by the superiors who treat the interns poorly. At a university hospital in Seoul, a professor repeatedly hit and verbally abused residents and only received three months of probationary time. The residents filed a petition to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, who recommended the suspension of the professor’s medical degree, but the ministry has no legal power to stop the professor from resuming his position. Sexual harassment and assault, as mentioned in the previous article, also ran rampant with few avenues for the victims to report the cases and voice their opinions without the fear of negative consequences for their careers.
Doctors, nurses, and surgeons — despite being some of the most vital jobs in assuring the well-being of Koreans, the “medical caste” runs deep at the most fundamental levels, even embedded into the education system. The medical profession may seem impressive, but the white coats belie the unspeakable duress that the workers must go through to take care of their patients. Rather than focusing on the high salaries and prestigious images, Korea needs to now treat the medical system in turn; to cleanse the medical system of the unseen “viruses”, Korea must first acknowledge the need for new medicine.