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Patients in Korea have lowest chance of asking doctors questions

Nov. 14, 2023 - 14:35 By Park Jun-hee

Park, 61, had a long list of questions he wanted to ask about his health and what he should do to recover after being diagnosed with heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should.

His doctor, however, was busy staring at the computer screen to prescribe him medication and set up his next appointment.

“I was barely even allowed to speak or ask questions (about my condition or the causes of it) during the consultation, before the doctor finally stopped talking and the appointment was over. The appointment lasted about five to seven minutes, and I think I got a good two more minutes because it was my first appointment,” said Park. In Korea, doctors often spend just a few minutes for each patient appointment.

“The doctor was busy looking at my CT scan, said I had a serious heart issue, and told me what I should do, such as quit smoking and drinking, eat healthy and do some exercise to get back to normal. I got a bit lost because of the medical jargon,” he said.

Park is one of many patients in South Korea who are unable to ask questions to doctors during appointments with them.

According to the Korean Academy of Health Policy and Management on Tuesday, a study analyzed by a research team at Yonsei University on South Korea’s health care system in 2020 using the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s health care statistics found that the likelihood of a patient asking their doctor questions during a medical appointment was the lowest among seven comparable countries. The study didn’t disclose the names of the other countries.

The study pointed out that the shortage of health care workers compared to medical facilities constitutes a marked problem with South Korea’s health care system, compared to those of other OECD member states, calling for improvements particularly in primary care and mental health services.

“In terms of the quality of medical care, Korea has higher-quality medical care than other OECD countries for acute care and cancer patients. But the quality of primary care and mental health-related care is relatively low,” the study noted.

A neurology fellow at one of South Korea’s five major hospitals who wished to speak on condition of anonymity told The Korea Herald that patients or their guardians barely ask questions due to the lack of time.

“There are a limited number of patients that each doctor sees every day, and there’s a limited amount of time that we work, so (doctors) tend to say everything they can think of to the patients,” she said.

“Doctors usually have one eye on the patient and one eye on the computer screen to check the time and (the patient’s) medical record. … By the time doctors are done treating the patient, the three-to-five-minute appointment ends, which is probably why patients are unable to find answers to their clinical questions,” the fellow added.