Paper bags containing different kinds of herbal medicine are placed under the roof of a Korean traditional house in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. Korean Oriental medicine has a long history but currently faces a crisis.
/ Korea Times
By Kim Tae-jong
Just 10 years ago, an Oriental medicine doctor always topped the list of the best profession and was listed as best spouses in surveys by matchmaking companies. Oriental medicine doctors enjoyed a comparatively large income, job security and high social status.
But their heyday is apparently waning, and the reality is many such doctors now struggle for survival with about 1,200 clinics reporting bankruptcy every year.
They blame it on the oversupply of licensed Oriental medicine practitioners as the main reason behind the current crisis and call for necessary measures to tackle the problem.
In line with such a move, the Association of Korean Oriental Medicine (AKOM) has recently demanded the government cut down the entrance quota of Oriental medicine universities and downsize their departments.
“In short, there are too many clinics in operation and it’s at a threatening level,” said Jang Dong-min, spokesperson of AKOM and head doctor at Skyland Clinic. “Now we believe there should be action to control the supply of graduates from Oriental medicine schools.”
According to AKOM, the number of licensed Oriental medicine practitioners was 12,000 in 2001 but it jumped to 20,000 in 2010, suggesting about 50 percent of all licensed practitioners have graduated in just the past 10 years.
“You may think the more Oriental medicine doctors there are, the better and cheaper medical services you will get. It worked that way in the beginning. But the truth is, the oversupply is now decreasing the quality of medical service,” Jang said.
He tried to remain careful not to give the impression that Oriental medicine doctors are in a selfish turf war, which he thinks would make the situation worse. But he criticized the government’s quantity-focused policy.
“I think the initial purpose of supplying enough Oriental medical doctors has been already reached. Now, we have passed the level of more-than-enough. Considering the medical service quality, we need to regulate the quota,” he said.
Currently, over 800 students graduate from 11 Oriental medicine schools nationwide and most of them choose to open their own clinic, but face a harsh reality.
“I have to work until 8 or 9 p.m. sometimes even on holidays. But I have only 10 patients a day, sometimes less than that. Meanwhile, my debt has been snowballing as I have to pay rent, give employees salaries and buy herbal medicines,” an Oriental medicine doctor said, who wanted to withhold his name.
With more Oriental medicine doctors experiencing financial difficulties, the popularity of Oriental medicine schools is also decreasing.
For example, in 2002 when Oriental medicine was booming, students belonging to the top 0.5 percent in the College Scholastic Ability Test were only able to be accepted to the Oriental medicine department at Kyung Hee University, one of the most prestigious among Oriental medicine schools. But now those in the top 1 percent can be accepted at the school and the competitive rate is also on decrease.
“It’s understandable that fewer elite students want to choose Oriental medicine as their major in concern for their future,” Choi Seung-hoon, dean of the College of Oriental Medicine at Kyung Hee University, said. “It shows how Oriental medicine is seen by people.”
He also pointed out that the lack of job opportunities for graduates from Oriental medicine schools is one of the main reasons behind the unpopularity of Oriental medicine.
“The government allowed universities to open Oriental medicine schools, but it has never come up with measures to allow graduates to work in various fields. Most graduates tend to end up opening their own clinics as they don’t have other options,” he said.
There are few jobs that Oriental medicine graduates can apply for such as government posts, big hospitals and drug companies as the government restricts job opportunities for them, while graduates from Western medicine schools have more options and comparatively broader ranges of job selections, Choi said.
Oriental medicine doctors also blame the government’s discriminative policies on the operation of clinics.
They admit that financial hardship is the problem not only for Oriental medicine clinics but also for small local Western medicine clinics, but they argue that the government has come up with various measures to help boost small local Western medicine clinics but there is no supportive measure for them.
“The amount of subsidies for Oriental medicine clinics is much lower than that of Western medicine clinics,” said Oriental medicine doctor Kim Hyun-soo, who runs his own clinic in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul. “For example, if you open a hospital for seniors, you will get much lower subsides than Western medicine doctors and there are more restriction for Oriental medicine doctors to abide by in the operation of their clinics.”
He also said lower insurance coverage for patients at Oriental medicine clinics is another big problem, which simply makes patients have to pay more than at Western medicine clinics even if they have similar treatment.
“It’s simple. Which do you want to go to — an Oriental medicine clinic or a Western medicine clinic, if you have to pay more at an Oriental clinic?” Kim said.
But he admitted that some Oriental medicine doctors used to only try to sell patients lucrative yet expensive herbal medicine, which slowly makes patients turn their back to Oriental medicine as they can easily buy cheap alternative health supplements.
“There are some Oriental medicine doctors who force patients to buy expensive herbal remedies simply to earn more money, and it is surely a problem. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all the Oriental medicine doctors should be blamed for such abusive behavior nor that herbal medicine is useless or ineffective,” he said.
Although herbal medicines have super and numerous advantages as preventive medicines, he believed they are underestimated or diminished.
“Western medicine doctors harshly criticize Oriental medicine treatments, and some reports on Oriental medicine claiming some products contained harmful chemicals or cancer-causing substances were often exaggerated, which are consequently giving people the wrong impression that it is harmful to their health, which is totally wrong,” he said.
He suggested more academic research must be conducted to promote the advantages of Oriental medicine as effective traditional medicine.