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Bullet trains change large hospitals’ bottom lines
  • By Lee Min-ju
  • Published 2017.07.11 16:30
  • Updated 2017.09.22 13:17
  • comments 0

Korea Train eXpress (KTX) has shortened the Seoul-Busan travel time to two hours, reducing the whole nation to a one-day life zone. Thanks to the KTX that started its service in 2004, Daejeon has long become a commutable area with an hour’s ride, and Busan and Gwangju, which used to require an overnight stay, have also become one-day courses of a trip.

KTX has not just altered everyday life but brought about considerable changes in the healthcare environment as well. Patients in faraway provinces, who had been unable to go to university hospitals in Seoul because of long distances, are directing their steps toward the capital city to receive treatment.

The recent opening of a new bullet train – Super Rapid Train, or SRT, which departs from Suseo, southern Seoul – is making another change.

With the opening of SRT last December, an increasing number of patients from provinces have visited large hospitals in southern Seoul.

Until now, patients who came from the countryside usually went to Seoul National University Hospital서울대병원(SNUH) and Severance Hospital because they were closer to the Seoul Station, the terminus of KTX. With the opening of SRT, however, patients from provinces visit university hospitals in Gangnam areas, such as Samsung Medical Center (SMC)삼성서울병원 and Gangnam Severance Hospital강남세브란스병원, close to the Suseo Station, the last stop of SRT.

After the opening of SRT in December, about 1.47 million people used the service in the first month, and the number of passengers rose to 1.54 million in May, In contrast, the number of KTX passengers had been steadily dropped from 5.1 million in December to 5 million in January, 4.5 million in February and 4.6 million in March before barely recovering the 5-million threshold in April. On average, the number of people who use SRT on a daily basis remains at 42,000, about a quarter of the KTX’s 160,000, but has recorded a remarkable growth in the first six months.

Hospitals near the SRT stations are experiencing an influx of patients from other areas.

They have yet to come up with the exact growth rate, but officials at Samsung Medical Center agree there is an increase of patients who visit it riding the bullet train. There is also a trend of making an appointment according to the train arrival times. A nurse said, “There are quite a few of them who come by boarding the SRT. Some patients ask if they could adjust their appointment time, saying they need to take the train.”

A doctor at Samsung Medical Center also said, “Patients and their visitors say it has become much more convenient to visit our hospital because of SRT. My colleagues who are working outside of Seoul complain about how they lost all of the patients because of the SRT.”

There has been an increase of in-patients at Gangnam Severance Hospital since the opening of the SRT. Hospital staffs believe the influx of provincial patients who visit Seoul for severe and rare diseases, such as cancer, has been behind the growth of hospitalized patients.

Hospitals changing the route of shuttle buses to stop at Suseo Station

Hospitals are also busy preparing for the influx of new patients. They are considering adding or changing the current shuttle bus routes for the convenience of patients visiting the hospitals from remote regions of the country.

Samsung Medical Center added another stop at Suseo High-speed Railway Station to its current shuttle bus route that stops at Suseo and Irwon stations. The shuttle buses are running at 10-minute (15-minute on weekends) interval, transporting more than 800 visitors a day.

An employ at Samsung Medical Center said, “There were quite a few times when I tried to ride the shuttle bus to work when the train arrived but couldn’t because it was full. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, there are a lot of people who come to the hospital by ridding the SRT.’”

In fact, when this reporter visited the shuttle bus stop at Suseo Station go to SMC, four or five passengers were waiting in line even though a shuttle just departed just moments ago. A patient waiting at the SMC shuttle bus station said, “Before the opening of SRT, I would take the KTX to Seoul, then take a taxi from Seoul Station for an hour to get to SMC, which was very inconvenient. But if I take the SRT, I can get off the station, take the shuttle bus for about five minutes to be there.”

Gangnam Severance Hospital decided to add a direct route. There is a shuttle bus running every 30 minutes that only goes to and comes from Suseo Station and the hospital. A worker at GSH said, “On average, about 150-160 people use the shuttle bus daily. We are operating the shuttle bus for the convenience of the patients who come from far areas.”

Gangnam Severance Hospital has been operating the “Customer Health Lounge” at Suseo Station since Jan. 25.

Some hospitals operate ‘customer health lounge’ at SRT station

Gangnam Severance Hospital signed an MOU with Supreme Railways (SR) and has been operating ‘Customer Health Lounge’ at Suseo Station since on Jan. 25. Some nurses are stationed at the lounge, providing first aid, consulting and reservation services.

“We help arrange an appointment if visitors require treatments at tertiary medical institutions, and adjust the treatment time in keeping with the train schedule,” said Chung Yun-soo, a nurse who works at the customer health lounge. “I can feel an increase in the number of SRT passengers firsthand as well as the growth of visitors to our lounge.”

On average, there are around 50 people who visit the customer health lounge daily, and about 1900 people used the services last month, which was a record. Patients who visit the lounge comment on the conveniences of visiting the hospital with the opening of SRT, she added

As the number of visitors using the SRT grows significantly, SNUH and Severance Hospital (in Shinchon) are paying keen attention. Some officials even attribute the recent declines in the number of patients may be due to the influence of the SRT.

A senior official at Seoul National University Hospital said, "It is true that the number of patients is decreasing recently. The reason could be the SRT, or it could be because of several constructions works going on within our hospital.”

A professor at the Severance Hospital also said, “I can’t say it is because of the SRT, but it is true that patients in the Shinchon hospital are decreasing, while those in the Gangnam hospital are increasing.”

Provincial hospitals bent on working out self-help measures

Hospitals outside of Seoul, which had already lost patients to Seoul-based institutions because of the KTX, say there is nothing new with the additional loss with the opening of SRT. So far, there has not been a significant change in the number of patients. Still, they are trying to find solutions to prevent further outflows of patients to the capital area.

For example, Chonnam National University Hwasun Hospital, located in Gwangju-South Jeolla Province area which saw 45 percent of patients go out of the region, has built cancer treatment capability comparable to large hospitals in Seoul and is trying hard to advertise it to residents.

“It is frustrating to see local patients take pains and spend lots of money to go to Seoul when there is an excellent cancer treatment institution and nearby,” said an official at the hospital. “We will do everything to strengthen our cancer-treating ability to attract patients from Seoul to cure cancer.”

An official at Chonnam National University Hospital also said, “We are planning to enhance the competitiveness by specializing in vascular diseases. Also, we are establishing a smooth collaborating network with nearby hospitals and clinics to lure back patients heading toward Seoul.”

An official at Pusan National University Hospital said, “We have already lost patients due to the opening of KTX. It isn’t for certain, but just in case we lose more patients because of the SRT, we are going to focus on competing with other hospitals and marketing our institution.”

An employee at Dong-A University Hospital also said, “We are having a massive remodeling under way while trying to attract excellent medical workers as well.”

minju9minju@docdocdoc.co.kr

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