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[Op-Ed] Class-action Victory of Plastic Surgery Victims

Posted December. 16, 2008 06:09,   


The heroine of the Korean drama “General Hospital II” that hit TV screens last month is Ha Yun (played by actress Kim Jung-eun), who opted for medical school after passing the national law bar. She aspires to be a medical malpractice lawyer just like many doctors who recently gained admission to Korean law schools, including seven at Seoul National University and four at Ewha Womans University. Many lawyers are studying medicine and doctors studying law, showing the rising demand for specialists who can handle the expected rise in medical malpractice lawsuits. The cost and damages from malpractice are expected to exceed one trillion won (731 million U.S. dollars) by 2010. Given the growing demand for malpractice suits, it is unsurprising to see doctors and lawyers eager to encroach on each other’s turf.

Hospitals and patients usually reach a settlement when malpractice occurs, but a growing number of patients have taken their cases to court. The number of malpractice cases grew from 519 in 2000 to 979 in 2006. To win a case, the patient must prove to the judge that they were adversely affected by malpractice. A plaintiff must prove the damage under the Civil Procedure Law. This is tricky for patients, however, since they lack medical expertise. Consequently, they usually have only a slim chance of winning most malpractice suits.

Last week’s historic class-action victory against two plastic surgeons, however, has given hope to patients who take on doctors in court. A group of victims won the first class-action suit in Korea against plastic surgeons. They underwent plastic surgery at the same hospital and suffered similar damage from side effects. They met online to prepare for the lawsuit. Their victory shows that fighting together is more effective than doing so alone. Considering that medicine is a highly specialized area, many precedents in the Supreme Court have asked doctors to prove that they made no mistake instead of demanding patients to present proof. Such changes will require doctors to be more alert.

The rise in the number of malpractice lawsuits shows that more patients are eager to exercise their rights. There are, however, two sides to a story. Doctors complain that certain patients misunderstand the situation and take an extreme stance. In this context, many medical graduates avoid becoming surgeons or obstetricians because those areas are most prone to malpractice lawsuits. As a result, the two fields have a chronic shortage of doctors. What doctors can do is to respect patient rights and cooperate with them to avoid incurring unnecessary social cost from malpractice lawsuits.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)