Finding a pediatric clinic in South Korea has become increasingly difficult due to a continuing shortage of pediatricians, leading to longer wait times for patients to get treated.
“It is very common to wait for dozens of people who made reservations before you,” Yoo, a mother of a 4-year-old boy, told The Korea Herald.
Yoo, 35, who is living in Gyeonggi Province, said her child had a fever last week and had to take him to a local hospital. When she made a reservation at around 3 p.m., there were already over 50 people who had booked before her.
“I was able to let my child see a doctor after 6 p.m.,” said the mother, who only wished to be identified by her last name.
The number of pediatric clinics has been dwindling for several years. According to the Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service data, the number of pediatric clinics that closed over the last five years reached 550, higher than the number of new pediatric clinics that opened during the same period, 519.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 331 children’s hospitals that shut down, with only 287 new ones opening over the three-year period.
A chronic shortage of pediatricians in the country is one of the key factors that contribute to the decrease in the number of pediatric clinics.
“Pediatricians are now less attractive options for medical students, compared to doctors working in other medical fields, like eye doctors or orthopedic doctors,” said a doctor surnamed Han who works at a children’s hospital in Gyeonggi Province.
In 2023, only 33 medical students applied for the pediatric residency training program in the country, which accounts for only 16.4 percent of all 207 residency positions available at 67 hospitals nationwide.
The dearth of pediatric residents at large hospitals was also blamed for the death of a 5-year-old child over Children's Day weekend earlier this month. The boy, who had acute respiratory problems, died after five hospitals refused to admit him.
The chronic shortage of pediatric specialists at hospitals has lowered overall emergency response capabilities of hospitals, local media outlets then reported.
"One of the major factors for medical students not pursuing a career as a pediatrician is that they make less money," Han said.
According to Ministry of Health and Welfare data, in 2020, the average salary of pediatricians who own their clinics came to 108 million won ($81,600) a year, ranked the lowest among doctors with different medical specialties.
Pediatricians were also the only medical practitioners who saw decreases in their annual earnings, compared to 2010. The average salary of pediatricians in 2010 reached some 130 million won.
In the meantime, the average annual salary of eye doctors in 2020 ranked second with 458 million won, followed by orthopedic doctors with 403 million won, four times higher than what a pediatrician makes in a year.
Behind the declining salary of pediatricians are the country’s low birthrate and decreasing children population. The shrinking population only means that less children will visit pediatric clinics in the future, thus affecting doctors' earnings down the road.
Lim Hyun-taek, the head of the Korean Pediatric Society, pleaded for the government's policy support during a press conference held in March.
The reimbursement for doctor consultations, he said, has remained unchanged for around three decades under the country’s fee-for-service system, making it difficult for pediatricians to operate their clinics under rising inflation.
Lim insisted that if small pediatric clinics start to disappear due to financial difficulties, it would set off a chain of reactions. Less students will want to become pediatricians at larger hospitals, which will then result in an overall decrease in the number of pediatric specialists, jeopardizing the country's child care system.
By Shim Woo-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org)