[VIEWPOINT]Use our ‘medical power’ on hospice

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[VIEWPOINT]Use our ‘medical power’ on hospice

Anyone who goes to a large general hospital in the Gangnam area of Seoul knows that it is crowded with cancer patients.
They make up 40 percent of all patients. And in some medical departments, 70 percent of the patients have cancer.
Just thinking, even for a moment, that cancer patients are lying there in 1,000 to 1,200 hospital beds in Seoul makes us feel that the world is a scary place and life is sorrowful. Thinking of other patients with terminal illnesses makes our hearts even heavier.
It isn’t until a cancer cell attacks a member of our beloved family that we finally see the truth.
People go to this and that hospital at first, and cling to folk remedies, knowing it is all wishful thinking.
Family members get exhausted and finally, patients themselves burn out. We have seen the families of patients go bankrupt after a patient dies in excruciating pain.
But the breakup of a family is an even bigger pain. A family’s bankruptcy and the parting of its members in all directions brings enormous economic and social losses to our society. Some medical doctors who treat cancer patients have studied the phenomenon.
Sociology scholars are not interested in this field yet, and economics scholars are indifferent.
I have a few questions that I can’t resist asking.
They say Korea has a global medical standard. The brightest students in our high schools want to enroll in medical college and talented medical doctors are continuously produced.
The power of the medical community has become so strong that people even use the expression “medical power.”
South Korea has one of the highest standards in the world for its medical facilities.
So, why are the 110,000 new cancer patients each year having a hard time? Why do so many of them die in pain?
According to a study by the National Cancer Center research team two years ago, cancer patients spend an average of 28 million won ($28,800) for direct and indirect medical costs the year before they die.
Depending on the patient, some spend even more.
In numerous cases, patients spend almost all of their hard-earned lifetime savings right before they die. That’s not all. When cancer patients are judged as having no chance of survival, they are pushed out of the medical world. The period of their hospital stay is even limited. The tragedy becomes even more extreme.
Another report says that 17.4 percent or more of the patients who visit the emergency room of a general hospital have terminal cancer.
The rage expressed by the patients who really need emergency treatment at the emergency room but are pushed outside is another story altogether.
The image of Korea’s medical service has been disgraced because the hospice system is not used enough.
Thanks to Korea’s religious circles the hospice activity which helps patients with terminal illnesses in a humane manner started in Korea, for the first time in Asia.
However we still haven’t reached a social consensus on the hospice system.
Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia have taken the lead in Asia in establishing the hospice system.
Twenty-five years have already passed since the United States enacted a law that guarantees patients a hospice system and palliative medicine.
When such a system is established in Korea, our patients will be guaranteed a right to choose and be able to end their lives in the way they want.
And the medical care on terminal cancer patients will be reduced gradually, saving them money. That is why the medical world claims health insurance should be expanded to cover hospice services.
I received hospice volunteer service training for six months last year.
And with that, I received training on how a terminal patient must choose whether to extend his or her life relying on a mechanical device for breathing or accept a natural death while trying to keep their human dignity.
I open my heart to the earnest stories of the hospice workers who helped me choose the latter.
We need to get rid of our society’s system that insists on treating patients in pain with technology alone, and end prejudices that try to define hospice activities only as the charity work of certain religious organizations.
What kind of a pride and prejudice could there be in the face of death?

* The writer is the editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine NEXT. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Chul-joo
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