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Doctors Say South Korea Health Care System Is Facing A Major Crisis


South Korea's health care system is rated as one of the best among developed economies, and it's seen as a key factor in the country's success in keeping the coronavirus under control. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, many of the country's doctors are unhappy about the system, which they say is facing a major crisis.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: South Korea's national health insurance system has covered the entire population for the past 30 years and now pays for COVID testing and treatment, but any medical treatment paid for by national insurance needs approval from an independent agency. Seo Yeon Joo, a 29-year-old resident doctor of internal medicine at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul, says such restrictions have prevented her from giving patients the medication they need.

SEO YEON JOO: (Through interpreter) I felt powerless not being able to use this medicine even when it was right next to me.

KUHN: Doctors can be penalized for giving treatments that the agency considers inappropriate, but Seo says she's been sorely tempted to buck the system.

SEO: (Through interpreter) I've even thought of breaking into the pharmacy department to steal medicine for the patients.

KUHN: Seo says she's demoralized to see young doctors abandoning essential fields such as internal medicine and heading for lower-risk and higher-paid ones such as cosmetic surgery.

SEO: (Through interpreter) When doctors lose the last remaining commitment to their calling and sense of self-worth, I believe that will be the moment South Korea's medical system collapses.

KUHN: Many doctors are up in arms over the government's reform plan to recruit more medical school students and send them to work in rural areas where few doctors want to go. Dr Ko Han-seok is an exception. He retired from his job at a hospital in Seoul to work in rural Gangwon province, where he says conditions are tougher.

KO HAN-SEOK: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: In rural areas, patients are mostly middle- to low-income and struggling economically, he says. And because they come from villages scattered around a wide, mountainous region, just getting to the hospitals located in county towns is often difficult. In August thousands of frustrated doctors walked out of their hospitals on strike. At a press conference, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told the doctors to go back to work.


KIM GANG-LIP: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Please think seriously about where you should be, he said, when a nationwide health crisis is tormenting every citizen. The government later relented and put their reform plan on hold. Ko Han-Seok out in Gangwon province says the government should not have rolled out a controversial plan in the middle of an epidemic. But the doctors, he adds, should not have gone on strike.

KO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: They strongly object to the premise that medical services and doctors are public goods, he says. So even without the coronavirus crisis, the coming of this conflict was a matter of time. Resident doctor Seo Yeon Joo sees it differently.

SEO: (Through interpreter) It's the doctors who, more than anyone else, are aware of the public nature of medical services and try to put it into practice.

KUHN: Seo says that after returning to their jobs, many of the striking doctors feel defeated and depressed. She says she will focus on helping them to heal their wounds and continue the fight. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "NEVER MESS WITH SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.