[Viewpoint] Time to open up the medical system

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[Viewpoint] Time to open up the medical system


The historic city of Sopron, Hungary, is famous for dental tourism.

Located on the Austrian border, Sopron has over 500 dental clinics. Among the city’s 60,000 residents, 5,000 are dentists.

Prices for many procedures are just a fraction of what they cost in other countries in the area. Sopron became the hottest destination for dental tourism after the European Union was established. Today, 130,000 foreigners visit Sopron annually, many of them for medical procedures.

The money they spend there accounts for 10 percent of Hungary’s annual gross domestic product.

In Korea, it is very challenging to become a doctor.

As a high school student, you have to rank within the top 1 percent in the College Scholastic Ability Test.

And after you get into medical school, you have to study for another six to 12 years.

Upon graduation, these smart professionals are eager to leave the country and move abroad.

If these doctors go to the United States, they can enjoy a much more comfortable lifestyle and higher wages.

Last year, 800 doctors took the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

Online communities where doctors exchange information on the exam have 13,000 members. Classes are offered to prepare for the USMLE, and dozens of doctors spend countless hours on Saturdays and Sundays studying for the exam.

However, the success rate for the USMLE is not very high. Only about 7 percent of test-takers passed all four parts last year.

There are easier ways to get a foreign medical license. The Geochang International School in South Gyeongsang offers global medical programs.

The department opened four years ago in collaboration with Hungary’s University of Debrecen Medical School and Dental School.

The classes are taught in English and Hungarian. So far, about 40 students have chosen to continue their studies at the University of Debrecen.

Tuition at the Hungarian university is 30 percent of what it costs to attend a medical school in the United States.

And once you graduate from Debrecen, you can practice anywhere in the European Union, including Sopron. An impressive 90 percent of Debrecen medical school graduates pass the USMLE.

Lately, Minister of Finance Yoon Jeung-hyun’s biggest concern is how to expand domestic consumption.

The key is to nurture the service industry.

Promoting the service industry represents a shortcut to increasing jobs and encouraging economic growth at the same time.

At the end of last year, Minister Yoon attempted to legalize for-profit medical corporations, but the effort failed.

“The essence of the problem is that if you fail to break the resistance of the vested interests, you won’t be able to persuade other workers who are breadwinners,” said Cha Mun-jung, a senior researcher at the Korea Development Institute.

“As a consequence, the government attempted to relax the restriction for professional licenses, but the plan is caught in a quagmire.”

The nation’s pharmacists, tax accountants and optometrists think that the government is targeting their professions specifically while keeping its hands off of doctors.

At this rate, efforts to nurture the medical service industry will not be able to move forward.

Some civic groups say that medical service is one of the basic rights of citizens.

If for-profit medical corporations are allowed to operate, these groups argue, those who are already underprivileged will be in an even more disadvantaged position.

Moreover, some doctors with private practices claim that the overall quality of medical service could be enhanced if medical schools reduced their student numbers.

However, the number of doctors per citizen in Hungary is twice the level in Korea.

And no one there is complaining.

Instead, Hungarian doctors created an enviable climate in Sopron by fostering intense competition. For-profit hospitals in Asia have been enjoying brisk business in recent years.

Raffles Hospital in Singapore and Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand are even publicly traded. Over 40,000 foreign patients are treated at Bumrungrad every year.

These hospitals have improved the quality of the services they offer in part by attracting foreign capital.

The times are changing.

Korean travel companies are luring customers by promoting packages that include full-body cosmetic surgery in Thailand for the same cost as eyelid surgery in Seoul.

As global boundaries have crumbled, the system to produce doctors has become more diversified.

If you want to survive, you must accept competition and adapt to change.

However, Korean doctors seem to be digging a deeper and deeper hole. They are resistant to the realities of their profession in today’s world.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Chul-ho
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