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Korean hospitals suffer from shortage of nursesAverage working period remains at 5.4 years, ranked low in OECD
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2017.03.02 10:48
  • Updated 2017.03.02 13:55
  • comments 0

Few countries are free from concerns about the insufficient nursing workforce, but the problem is more severe in Korea than elsewhere.

One result of it is the nation’s unique hospital culture of “ganbyeong,” or family care, as relatives of patients have to take care of their beloved ones.

Korea is ranked low in the number of nurses as a percentage of the population in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of mostly rich countries.

According to OECD Health Statistics 2016, Korea had 5.6 practicing nurses, including nursing aides, per 1,000 people in 2014, far lower than the OECD average of 9.6. Nurse practitioners are those who directly attend on patients.

Out of the 35 OECD members, 26 countries submitted statistics on nursing practitioners and Korea was ranked at 20th place. The six states with a smaller number of practicing nurses than Korea were Poland (5.2), Spain (5.2), Israel (4.9), Latvia (4.8), Greece (3.2), and Mexica (2.7). (The statistics excluded countries, which included nurses engaged in training of other nurses without taking care of patients as well as those who had licenses but were not working.)

“Many OECD nations have concerns about the shortage of nursing workforce, as demand for them rises as a result of population aging but practicing nurses retire,” said a recent report by Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA). “The number of nursing practitioners per population in Korea remains half of the OECD average, reflecting the seriousness of the problem.”

Nowhere else is this problem being felt more acutely than in medical fields.

Even hospitals, which are participating in the government’s pilot project of integrating nursing and care services aimed to improve ganbyeong (family care) practice cited as one of the reasons for the spread of epidemics, are stamping their feet in anxiety to secure sufficient nurses.

As those big medical institutions absorb nursing workforce “like a black hole,” as some industry watchers describe, situations are getting even worse at smaller hospitals in provinces.

Nor does it mean the nation is negligent in producing new nurses. The government has continued to expand the entrance quota of nursing schools. Recently, the number of graduates has increased to about 23,000 a year.

According to the 2016 statistical yearbook, released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of licensed nurse amounted to about 338,600, but nursing practitioners numbered only 210,000, meaning more than 100,000 are away from fields.

The ministry has come up with various support policies to bring idle nurses back to hospitals, but their effects remain minimal. According to Korean Nurses Association (KNA), only 894 returned to medical fields last year.

The situation is so grave that there are calls for importing nurses from Southeast Asian countries and elsewhere. Some foreign nurses are already working in Korea.

Foreign nurses can work in Korea provided they get licenses here. However, only those who graduate from nursing schools recognized by the Health-Welfare Ministry can take the state exam for nurses. Currently, the ministry recognizes about 160 foreign nursing colleges in 10 countries. Not many foreign nurses are taking Korea’s state test. In 2015, only 43 applied for the test, and 36 passed it.

Both the government and medical officials agree, however, the import of foreign nurses cannot be a basic solution. Therefore, the government is not considering ways of making the most of the foreign workforce by, for instance, lowering entry barriers for foreign nurses.

“We need to verify foreign workforce, and the minimal device for that process is the state exam for nurses, The government is not considering ways to expand foreign nurses’ work here,” said an official at the ministry’s division for medical resources policy. “We are planning to develop plans to supply nursing workforce in the latter half of this year.”

KNA also says the influx of foreign nurses can result in adverse effects, stressing instead the need to improve the work environment for nurses and provide institutional support in this direction. At stake is how to extend the short average work period of 5.4 years, it said.

“Culture exerts significant influence on nursing. There is a limit to foreign nurses’ service here because of the language barrier,” a KNA official said. “At a time when poor working conditions are forcing Korean nurses to quit early, the import of nurses can aggravate the problem by pulling down wages and other reasons.”

“Urgent are the measures to improve the work environment for practicing nurses, maintain their employment and prevent their separation from jobs,” the official went on to say. “The government, for instance, needs to provide a standard work directive and wage guideline to replenish nursing workforce at provincial hospitals and narrow the gaps of working conditions between large hospitals in the capital area and small, provincial institutions.”

No less important is the improvement of nursing management fees so that medical institutions can more effectively employ additional nurses, the KNA official added.


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