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S. Korea registers highest gain in life expectancy of OECD countries

South Korea has enjoyed the largest gains in life expectancy over the past four decades among a group of 34 mostly rich nations, new health data showed Thursday.

In 1960, life expectancy in South Korea was almost 16 years below the average of member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But as of 2011, South Korea's life expectancy stood at 81.1 years, a full year above the OECD average of 80.1, according to the health data posted on the website of the OECD.

The data said gains in life expectancy in South Korea and other member states over the past decades are linked to improvements in living conditions, public health interventions and progress in medical care.

It said 23.2 percent of adult South Koreans reported smoking daily in 2011, above the OECD average of 20.9 percent.

Still, there is a huge gender gap in smoking rates between men and women in South Korea. The data showed 41.6 percent of Korean men reported smoking every day in 2011, the highest reported rate across all OECD countries. In contrast, only 5.1 percent of women reported smoking every day, which was the lowest rate.

The data also showed that the number of doctors in South Korea has increased rapidly over the past two decades, though the number of doctors for every 1,000 people was 2.0 in 2011, the third lowest among OECD countries after Chile and Turkey, and well below the

2011 OECD average of 3.2.

South Korea "registered the highest growth rate in the number of doctors among all OECD countries, with the number of doctors per capita more than doubling between 1990 and 2010," according to the OECD.

Still, it said South Korea's growth rate could slow down in the coming years, following a restriction implemented in 2004 on the number of students entering medical schools.

The data showed that the number of hospital beds has continued to grow rapidly during the past decade in South Korea, while it is being reduced in most other OECD countries.

The OECD said South Korea's fast growth can be linked in part with the lack of capacity planning for hospital beds in a private, for-profit dominated health delivery system, and in part with the non-differentiation between chronic and acute care beds.

South Korea's health spending reached 7.4 percent of its gross domestic product in 2011, compared with the OECD average of 9.3 percent.

The United States, which spent 17.7 percent of its GDP on health in 2011, is by far the country that spends the most on health.

The data showed South Korea's health spending per capita has rapidly increased over the past 25 years, but South Korea continues to rank below the OECD average, with spending per capita of US$2,198 in 2011, compared with an OECD average of $3,339. (Yonhap News)