School to shrink doctor shortage

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School to shrink doctor shortage

Despite Seoul’s top-notch medical services, which have attracted more than a million medical tourists over the years, some Korean women still give birth in ambulances because they cannot find a doctor in their vicinity.

It has been a year but Park Dong-gyu, a firefighter with Hapcheon Fire Department in South Gyeongsang, remembers it as clear as yesterday when an emergency call came in on April 13 from a couple who needed help getting to the closest hospital with an obstetrician.

“As Hapcheon has no practicing obstetrician, I had to drive them to a hospital in Jinju,” Park said. “But the woman’s labor pains grew more frequent and I knew I might have to be the one to deliver the child.”

Park called a doctor at the Fire Department for instructions, and delivered the child just 1 minute from the hospital in Jinju.

Such cases are more common in Korea than one may imagine, as there are 57 cities, counties and districts without an obstetrician, and 29 without a practicing surgeon out of the 226 cities, counties and districts in the country, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

According to the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, nearly 53 percent of doctors in Korea are practicing only in and around Seoul.

To address this problem, the Health Ministry proposed in a National Assembly meeting last week a plan to establish a public medical school that specializes in public health and provides scholarships for students under the condition that they practice for 10 years at local areas outside Seoul.

“We hope to see the school, in 15 years, produce doctors who specialize in public health in local regions,” said Kwon Joon-wook, head of the public health policy bureau of the Health Ministry.

The Health Ministry will support the motion proposed in July by 75 lawmakers, including Saenuri Rep. Lee Jung-hyun, to establish a public medical school. According to the motion, the university will produce 100 to 120 doctors every year.

Students at the school will be provided full scholarships on the condition that they practice 10 years in local areas. For male doctors, this would be for seven years, excluding the three-year mandatory military service period.

“It’s hard to find doctors who practice in local regions like Hapcheon County,” said Ahn Myeong-gi, head of the national health center in Hapcheon. “So we have 32 doctors serving in the military dispatched throughout 17 towns, but 19 doctors will be leaving them by April next year when their military service ends.”

The number of doctors serving in the military has been dropping over the years, from 3,396 in 2009 to 2,095 in June, according to the Health Ministry.

The public medical school will focus on training doctors to become obstetricians, surgeons and pediatricians, who are much in need in the local areas.

A similar policy was included in the Health Ministry’s public health policy plan in March last year, and a motion to establish a public medical school was proposed at the Assembly two months afterwards. It was scrapped with the termination of the National Assembly’s term in May.

“Japan, the United States and Australia are establishing medical schools that focus on training practitioners in public health,” said Lee Jong-koo, head of the global medicine center of Seoul National University.

“Korea must establish its national public health school as soon as possible, even if the Korean Medical Association (KMA) may oppose it, for fear of producing too many doctors who it thinks will not be trained up.”

“Coming up with a new medical school may not be the solution,” said Choo Moo-jin, president of the KMA. “The new public medical school may turn out to be a slipshod effort. It may be wiser to use that money to train doctors in the current medical training institutes and send them to local regions with financial perks.”

But the Health Ministry’s Kwon sees it otherwise.

“The measure in increasing the number of candidates at existent medical universities to train public health doctors to practice in local areas has been tried and failed,” he said.

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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