Nurses and other hospital staff are suffering from worsening working conditions amid chronic manpower shortage. Experts say the nation must take steps to tackle the problem.
/ Korea Times file
By Bae Ji-sook
Song, a nurse of seven years, recently succeeded in moving to a ward that guarantees her work shift to remain fixed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the general hospital where she is employed.
She confessed that she was on the verge of changing her job because of her irregular and excessive work schedule.
“We have day, evening and nighttime shifts and are obliged to work in rotation. We suffer from constant fatigue and a chronic lack of sleep,” Song says. “We are virtually isolated from the other part of the world because after work, all we can think about is getting enough sleep.”
Besides the enormous stress of having to take care of patients, ― from minor injuries to life-or-death cases ― she said the largest cause of stress is the chronic shortage of manpower.
“It takes a certain period of time to train a nurse candidate to be a fulltime staff member. Therefore, the only way to make operations work with the limited number of workers is to make them put in more hours and sacrifice their private lives. No holidays, but late night shifts and other drawbacks,” she said.
Song is not the only nurse who is struggling with the sad reality the medical staff faces in Korea.
According to the Korea Health and Medical Workers’ Union’s recent survey of 20,156 of its members, nearly 70 percent complained about the lack of staff allocated to their wards or departments.
About 75 percent said the work is imposing too much mental and physical stress on them and that 56 percent are considering getting another job other than at medical facilities.
Most of the sufferers were nurses. Song Eun-jeong, head of the union’s policy department, said, “Marriage, pregnancy, childrearing and many other aspects compete for time in the hectic schedule. Though the management and the union agree to cap the number of night shifts to six days a month, the reality is that we work more than nine night shifts.”
In fact, in 2000, a Busan Court ordered a university hospital in the region to compensate one of its nurses who suffered bleeding which led to a miscarriage. Another source of the industry said, “Female medical staff have to take turns to get pregnant so that their absence won’t affect the whole operation of the ward.”
Online news outlet Medical Today quoted a hospital manager in Gyeonggi Province as saying, “A nurse is responsible for over 20 patients. We know it is ridiculous but to run a hospital, it is unavoidable,” he said.
In fact, the shortage of medical staff is reported in other parts of the world since the work requires extra attention dealing with life and death but at the same time require long working hours.
The U.S. has long welcomed foreign nurses and Japan has also started to search for medical staff from other countries and is expected to hire some starting next year.
The union claimed that the shortage of medical staff lowers the overall quality of medical service.
“While it is the nurses’ duty to take care of the patients, here in Korea, the period of time allotted to an individual patient is so small. Therefore, many family members or private guardians must take over the duty. We need an open discussion and the government as well as the public’s willingness to tackle the problem,” said Song, the medical union representative.