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EM physician from Korea enjoys work-life balance in AmericaNYMC Professor Chun crossed Pacific to specialize in disaster medicine
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2019.02.06 06:00
  • Updated 2019.02.07 09:08
  • comments 0

She had a solid reason to live as a doctor in the United States: She wanted to study disaster medicine the right way. She made up her mind and plans back when she was a medical student. She chose emergency medicine as her major early on. And she thought it would be better to study in the U.S. than in Korea to grab more opportunities in a larger world.

A decade has passed, and she is now working as an assistant professor at the Department of Emergency Medicine in New York Medical College while actively taking part in relief activities throughout the world. It is a story of Professor Chun Hye-young who is living as a doctor in the U.S. Chun has settled in America following her dream, but got work and life balance “on the side.”

Chun Hye-young (center), assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York Medical College, shares a moment with her colleagues on the eve of last Christmas.

‘Life as a US doctor’ started from disaster medicine

Professor Chun was interested in disaster medicine from her student days, and did voluntary services in Cambodia, East Timor and Uzbekistan. It was in Pakistan that she made up her mind.

A massive earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, killing 75,000 people. Chun’s alma mater, Ewha Womans University, was conducting a project to celebrate its 120th anniversary, selecting students who submitted excellent project plans and supporting them. Chun and her friends presented a project plan to carry out relief activities in a Pakistani refugee camp and the school selected it. Spending two weeks in Pakistan, Chun felt sure that “this is my job.”

To receive training at the emergency medicine department in the U.S., Chun began to make preparations “like a 100-yard sprinter” when she was in the fourth year of the regular course. She studied for two tests simultaneously – the (Korean) National Examination for Medical Practitioners and the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). It was to reduce the gap; in Korea, internship and residency start in March, but in the U.S., they begin in July.

“After graduating Ewha Womans University College of Medicine in 2007, I began to receive training of emergency medicine in the U.S. from July 2008. As a new semester begins in July in the U.S., schools begin to receive applications from summer of the previous year and complete all procedures by March. To apply for medical residency, you should at least have the results of USMLE Step1, Step2 Clinical Knowledge (Step 2 CK), and Step2 Clinical Skill (Step 2CS). As you should prepare for reference letters and essays, Korean graduates of medical colleges need to set up plans carefully to reduce the gap. I took the exam, wrote an essay, applied for residency and flew to the U.S. to have interviews, like a 100-yard sprinter.”

Path not preferred by foreign medical college graduates

Among doctors who graduate foreign medical schools, there are not many who chose emergency medicine for their majors. So are Korean doctors. That explains why Professor Chun experienced difficulties getting related information when she applied for residency at emergency medicine department. So she gathered information from websites mainly used by U.S. medical students and residents.

Professor Chun received resident training at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center Lebel 1 Trauma Center in Bronx, New York City. The trauma center is famous for treating many emergency patients in the U.S.

As the center is situated in South Bronx, notorious for harsh surroundings even in New York, people wounded by guns and knives were brought to it, as seen in the U.S. TV series “ER.” When she was in the third year of residency, a 10-year-old boy was rushed to the ER with a gunshot wound on his face. One night, he was looking out the door through a hole when neighborhood gangs knocked on their door looking for his elder brother, and took a bullet shot by a gang outside the house. The boy was screaming asking “Am I going to die now?”Fortunately, the boy survived.

Life in a foreign country, which started upon graduation from medical schools, was not easy. She was always the youngest both as an intern and as a resident.

“As I received training along with U.S. residents, I went through a lot of distress worried that I was lagging. My colleagues were more mature and experienced as most of them had undergone four years of undergraduate courses and four more years at medical schools. So it was natural that I lagged behind them, but at the time, the gap seemed to be so big that I suffered in silence. But nowadays, I might have put my hand out, saying, “I don’t know well as I am a foreigner, so help me please.’”

However, the training environment appeared to be more horizontal than in Korea. Seniors and physicians in charge taught residents individually, and they decided drug prescription or letting in and out hospitals through discussions with medical residents.

Residents’ working hours were limited to 80 a week and continuous work for 24 hours or more was prohibited. They have to rest for at least 14 hours after working 24 hours. Training hospitals that do not abide by this rule could face sanctions by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which forces them to cancel their training programs.

‘Work-life balance’ possible for US emergency medicine specialists

Chun is currently serving as an assistant professor at New York Medical College and is in charge of ultrasound training as the ultrasound director of the school. Interested genuinely in disaster medicine, she is a member of the Disaster Committee Board Member at the affiliated hospital. By belonging to core faculty, Chun also took part in interviewing and selecting medical residents.

According to Chun, U.S. doctors work 35-40 hours a week on average, and adjust their clinical hours by consulting with hospitals. When they are not treating patients, the doctors conduct a study or do administrative work. Wages, however, are the same for clinical and nonclinical work. They are different from Korea where hospitals pay more to doctors who treat patients more.

Particularly, emergency medicine specialists work three or four days a week and can rest the rest of the time. Also, they can work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or start their work at 3 p.m. By making the most of flexible shifts, they can engage in leisure activities.

“I take exercise, read books, meet friends and go on trips. I work out five days a week and have visited more than 50 countries. Emergency medicine specialists can spend their time relatively freely, which is why the job is popular in America. It is especially popular among women, who accounted for more than 30 percent of applicants in 2017.”

There are of course drunkards who rage about in the U.S. emergency rooms, too. To provide against contingencies, however, police officers reside in New York University Hospital 24 hours a day. Police officers exclusively responsible for hospitals in New York City reside at the institutions 24 hours a day and rush to the scene if problems occur. Two or three officers belong exclusively to ER and stay nearby medical workers.

“When accidents happen, residing police officers control the situation and take troublemakers out of hospitals to take necessary steps. If violent situations or worse occur, the hospital police take offenders to the New York Police Department and put them under custody.”

Advice to Korean female doctors worried about their gender

Professor Chun said she would like to advise female doctors and medical students in Korea, who want to become doctors in the U.S. but dare not do so “because they are women,” not to hesitate but practice.

“In Korea, people despite women who express themselves, citing a proverb, ‘It is a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock.’ It is different in the U.S. where women who do their job well and make their voices heard are recognized and respected. There are prejudices against women in the U.S., too. If you point it out firmly from the start and ask them to stop discrimination, however, they will accept your demands. I’ve seen lots of women doctors and medical students concerned about the difficulties they may experience in living in a foreign country by themselves. It is not easy, of course, but they can make it as they graduated medical schools in Korea.”


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