Critics say that Korea could face severe shortages of surgeons, and thus patients may not be able to receive surgery in time from 2027, when current 50-something surgeons will start retiring en masse. The Health and Welfare Ministry estimated that more than 30 percent of the surgeons and thoracic surgeons (8,299) nationwide are in their 50s and older, and that more than 2,400 of them will leave the operation room by 2020, and over 4,600 by 2037. In contrast, the supply of surgeons only amount to two thirds of the necessary number during the same period.
Significant shortages of surgeons who take care of patients in the emergency room and patients with advanced diseases including cancer patients have already been predicted since more than 10 years ago. The portion of medical students applying for residency in the department of surgery was 84.1 percent in 2007, and was constantly falling since, before rising to 72.5 percent last year. This trend of residents avoiding surgery department stems from the structure of “high risk and low profit.” Surgeries conducted by surgeons and thoracic surgeons entail a high level of difficulties and thus significant risks, and a higher chance for medical damage suits. The Korean Surgical Society claims that the pay for surgeries from the National Health Insurance and patients’ pockets only amounts to 76 percent of the actual cost. A surgery for an industrial injury is much more difficult to perform than eyelid surgery, but compensation is smaller.
Since the duration of surgical operation is long, and surgeons have to be on standby for emergencies, they suffer from work overload and burden. One out of 10 residents, who applied for the surgery department with commitment to help others, fails to complete the course and quit prematurely. Due to distorted pay for surgery, Korea comes to run short of surgeons, which in turn causes working conditions to deteriorate further in a vicious cycle.
Surgeons undergo a longer training period than other departments, but retire before other doctors. In light of this, the government should start training more surgeons immediately. Just like the number of medical students applying for gynecology grew after increasing pay for treatment in the department, Korea must adjust compensations paid to surgeons for surgical operations. The government must set up a long-term plan to train and produce more surgeons, and provide ample incentives to medical students applying for the department, while introducing certain duration for their mandatory service in the department. Only then will both medical doctors who frequently work overnight and patients in emergency will be able to survive.