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‘Majority of female doctors pressured not to get pregnant'

About 70 percent of South Korean female resident physicians, as well as 40 percent of women nurses are pressured not to get pregnant by their employers to minimize the number of workers on maternity leave, a report by a local human rights watchdog showed Monday.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea said it is issuing recommendations to the Ministry of Health and Welfare as well as the Ministry of Employment and Labor to improve working conditions for female health care workers to prevent human rights violations against them, including pressure to avoid pregnancies and sexual harassment. The proposal also recommends all employers provide education on gender equality and human rights to health care workers.
According to the watchdog’s report, which surveyed 130 female health care workers, including nurses and resident physicians last year, 71 percent of resident physicians and 40 percent of nurses said they were unable to make family plans as they are constantly pressured by co-workers and superiors not to get pregnant.

The report also showed that at some medical institutions, there is an unspoken rule that female workers cannot get pregnant at the same time. Everyone in each team is given their own “turn” to get pregnant, and those who become pregnant “by mistake” face constant workplace harassment, the report showed.

In one case, a female health care professional suffered a miscarriage after working many shifts while keeping her pregnancy a secret.

Kim Jin-hee (not her real name), a female resident physician at a general hospital, said there is no such rule that one has to wait for her turn to get pregnant at her workplace. But everyone in her team shares the opinion that becoming pregnant while a resident physician is simply “selfish behavior.”

“It has to do with the system. When a resident physician goes on maternity leave, her employer does not hire someone to fill the space (left by her). Her teammates have to fill in for her,” she said.

“And it’s like that at every hospital. I think in rural areas it has to do with labor shortage. But in most big hospitals in the metropolitan area, I think it’s just employers trying to save labor costs.”

Kim said that recently one of her teammates had to take three months off because she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Three of her colleagues, including herself, had to cover her colleague’s duties.

“It was hard for all of us. Nothing will change unless the government pressures educational institutions and hospitals to train and hire more nurses and physicians.”

South Korea has universal health insurance and nearly all citizens are beneficiaries of the program.

Yet the state-run National Health Insurance Service has been experiencing significant deficits since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Private health care providers’ overtreatment -- to get more coverage by a third-party public or private insurance payer -- as well as a shortage of health care professionals have been often highlighted as major causes of NHIS deficits and medical accidents. 

Previous studies have shown that resident physicians are often abused and exploited in the current system, regardless of gender. According to a study by the Korean Intern Resident Association, which surveyed 1,912 intern and resident physicians in 2014, health care professionals on average only slept 5.4 hours a day, and worked 93 hours per week. They also on average only took 8.3 days off every year.

Also, 61.5 percent of intern physicians and 44.4 percent of resident physicians said they have been verbally abused at their workplaces at least once by their professors, senior colleagues and patients.

The report also showed that almost 50 percent of the surveyed physicians nearly made medical mistakes due to physical fatigue and sleep deprivation, while 79 percent of them could not help dozing off during shifts.
“I don’t think the current system is safe for both physicians in training and patients,” said Kim. “We are often told that the training must be tough so we can be prepared for the worst medical situations. But no medical training should put patients at risk.”

By Claire Lee (