There is an old saying that “it is a case of a black hen laying white eggs”. It means that even in difficult situations talented people show up. People suffer from all kinds of hardships and use their talents to light up the world. Unfortunately, the public is so focused on their talents that they forget about the situation they are in. That’s why we are on the verge of so many talented people leaving us now. This is the story of Professor Lee Kook-jong, director of severe trauma at Ajou University Hospital, and director of the regional severe trauma center based at the same hospital. Known for being a reference to the KBS drama "Doctor Romantic”, Professor Lee Kook-jong has finally announced that he would resign as the director of the regional severe trauma center as of Jan. 20. His resignation is linked to various conflicts across the medical profession and the government's budget, which has received much media attention. Let's find out about the problems raised by Professor Lee Kook-jong, his efforts to solve those problems, and the critical gauge that influenced his resignation.
1. Who is Professor Lee Kook-jong?
As mentioned above, Professor Lee Kook-jong is a doctor at Ajou University Hospital. He became famous in 2011 through Operation Dawn in the Gulf of Aden, an operation to safely return a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates to South Korea. The doctor who treated Captain Seok Hae-kyun, who was seriously injured during the Dawn operation, was Professor Lee Kook-jong. Professor Lee Kook-jong personally borrowed some 400 million won to bring the captain safely to Korea as the amounted raised to transfer the captain back to South Korea was insufficient at the time. Later, Professor Lee Kook-jong, who received a national award of Korea in recognition of his contribution to the case. Also, he was recognized as a talented surgeon by treating North Korean soldiers who suffered severe gunshot wounds during their defection to the South in 2017. His main field, severe trauma surgery, is a field that requires a very high level of skill in surgical treatment, with few experts in Korea.
a. What is Law of Lee Kook-jong?
Professor Lee Kook-jong did not settle for his outstanding surgical skills. He has shown great efforts to develop his field of severe trauma surgery. Thanks to him, the Law of Lee Kook-jong could also be enacted. The official name of the Law of Lee Kook-jong is the Emergency Medical Service Act, which includes the necessary elements to treat emergency trauma patients he claimed. The main goal of the law was to create 16 new severe trauma centers across the country through some 160 billion won in the national budget. The law was well received by the medical community, but it took a long time to be enacted. As interest in Seok Hae-kyun, the captain of Operation Dawn in the Gulf of Aden decreased, politicians who actively supported the law of Lee Kook-jong have become indifferent to the legislation. The same was true after Joo Seung-yong, the politician of Democratic Party of Korea participated in the legislation in 2011. The Emergency Medical Service Act, which was left out of the list of bills to be dealt with at the last plenary session of the 18th National Assembly, was on the verge of being scrapped. The passage of the bill was urgent because 160 billion won of the budget from the fine income was to disappear in 2012. Professor Lee Kook-jong said, “Was it just lip service from the politicians? I didn't know this would happen because political figures promised to build it." As public opinion rapidly deteriorated, the Emergency Medical Service Act was added to the list of bills to be dealt with first, and eventually it could be enacted in 2012.
b. Establishment of the Severe Acute Trauma Center
After the legislation of the Emergency Medical Service Act, the situation did not get any easier. Until now, there has been a lot of controversies since the establishment of the regional severe trauma centers. At first, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced a budget reduction. It changed the total budget plan of 600 billion won, which originally had a budget of 100 billion won per branch, to a total budget plan of just 200 billion won, which would give only 10.7 to 87 billion won per branch. This is down to one-tenth of the original plan, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare cited the lack of budget feasibility. Politician Joo Seung-yong pointed out that the small-scale regional severe trauma center is difficult to maintain personnel and facilities responsible for patients and is the weakest policy that can produce minimal results with billions of won in the budget. Treatment for severe trauma patients is a low-profit treatment that is likely to result in non-payment treatment and the hospital should embrace those debts and deficits. Professor Lee Kook-jong, who has been paying for the insufficient cost of treating patients, was found to be in debt of some 800 million won as of 2017. Reducing the budget is a very sensitive issue.
There were also problems in selection of regional severe trauma centers. Ajou University Hospital, where Professor Lee Kook-jong works, was excluded from the regional severe trauma center. The mass media doubted the credibility of the announcement that Ajou University Hospital, which has excellent performance in treating severe trauma injuries, was excluded. Though Ajou University Hospital was included in the announcement of an additional trauma center later, the hospital had to treat patients with severe injuries without government’s support for several years. Despite this poor situation, the regional severe trauma centers have achieved significant results. The establishment of the regional severe trauma center reduced emergency room stays and the waiting time for surgery by an average of 57 minutes, according to a report by Medical Observer, while the Center for Severe Injury at Chosun University Hospital reported a 6 percent decrease in trauma death rate.
2. The Reason Why Professor Lee Kook-jong Decided to Resign
Professor Lee Kuk-jong has endured extreme work conditions as a doctor. What made him decide to resign from the director of the regional severe trauma center, where he devoted most of his efforts? This is speculated to be due to the rift between Professor Lee Kook-jong and Ajou University Hospital. Professor Lee Kook-jong's lecture implies a skeptical account of his relationship with the hospital. "Every day I am criticized, I take all the blame from the hospital for all the deficit." He has repeatedly expressed difficulties in his position in the hospital due to such remarks. The statement was found to be true after a recent MBC report revealed a transcript of recording by Yoo Hee-seok, the medical director of Ajou University Hospital, criticizing Professor Lee Kook-jong. Many in the media speculate that the ‘Doctor Helicopter’ is the reason.
The Doctor Helicopter Policy was created by a collaboration between Professor Lee Kook-jong and Gyeonggi-do Governor Lee Jae-myung, which was designed to allow 24-hour attendance and first medical aid while on the move. It consists of facilities that operate at night through the helicopter control tower, a fire situation room and allow emergency surgery by medical staff during helicopter transport. The Doctor Helicopter Policy started operation as of September 2019, but only a flew afew times. The residents of the nearby Gwanggyo New Town had harsh complaints. Ajou University Hospital was plagued by complaints that the sound of helicopters at night interfered with life.
Professor Lee Kook-jong was coming back from naval training when MBC interviewed him. In a telephone interview with SBS, he said Ajou University Hospital raised fake allegations that it used the budget of the regional severe trauma center to replace the salaries of existing medical staff and did not intentionally provide the necessary beds for the severe trauma center. In particular, the hospital wrote down the names of the medical staff of the regional severe trauma center like a blacklist, and Professor Lee Kook-jong revealed that about the hospital's position that “the hospital's construction limited the hospital's beds” is false. "I'm sick and tired of working at hospitals that make that kind of position," he said, complaining of the difficulties of hospital life. Asked about Professor Lee Kook-jong's plans, he said, "Well, I may not go back to Ajou University Hospital." Since the announcement, numerous petitions have been filed directly with the government on the ‘National Petition’ site, which has been demanding punishment for Ajou University Hospital and its chief Yoo Hee-seok, who pressured him. Professor Lee Kook-jong has now completed his post as head of the critical medical center and said that he will follow the hospital's policy and become a professor. However, it is also unclear whether he will be able to lead a normal hospital life.
Of course, it is hard to say clearly whose fault caused this situation. It is because this situation is related with the government, hospitals, and even patients. But one thing is clear. Professor Lee Kook-jong had to endure all these difficulties alone. What consolation can we offer him when he says he seems to have lived the wrong life as a doctor? Do we able to tell him to come back? The serious medical center and the Doctor Helicopter problem he wanted were still unresolved, even though everyone wept over his story. Perhaps there are a variety of reasons behind the scenes, such as our lack of civic awareness, political apathy and profitability in the medical community. Many people may be anxious to see Professor Lee Kook-jong come back, but it is in the right direction to reflect on the loss of another talent and do all the best to prevent such a case from happening again.< 저작권자 © 중앙헤럴드 무단전재 및 재배포금지 >