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'Ganbyeong'- big part of Korean hospital cultureKorea’s medical culture ② Translated into "family-care", this tradition has been around for as long as hospitals to take care of sick patients
  • By Constance Williams
  • Published 2017.02.23 08:34
  • Updated 2017.03.23 18:13
  • comments 0

Many people acknowledge Korea has one of the best heath care systems in the world, ranked 58th out of 191 countries, according to the World Health Organization. And if each country has a unique culture in its healthcare tradition, this one could be no exception.

One of the particular traits Korea has is “ganbyeong.” Translated into “family care,” it has exerted enormous influence on Korea’s hospitals and its healthcare system. Unlike most other countries in the world, Korea has maintained a distinctive practice where patients’ families primarily take the role of taking care of sick people, feeding, accompanying them to the bathroom and even sleeping on a spare mattress the hospital provides next to the patient's bed.

"Gan-Byung", a tradition commonly seen in Korean Hospitals where families takes care of the patient.

Family members of the patient can spend days, weeks and even months living in the hospital, shuffling back and forth from their homes to supply essential items while doing housework at the same time. Foreigners feel baffled by this tradition and wonder why one would make so much effort when nurses can do the job.

As a matter of fact, however, Korean nurses have much bigger loads than their counterparts in other advanced countries. According to the Korean Nurse Association (KNA), a Korean nurse takes care of an average of 31 patients on a shift, much higher than U.S. average of 10, and the 8.8 in major European countries.

A case in point is a nurse who quit her job in June after nearly six years. Wanting to be known only by her family name of Kim, the nurse, 28, said she would have preferred to quit a year earlier. “Working as a nurse isn’t what most people think it is,” Kim stated in an interview with the Korea Bio Medical Business Review. “Medical staff are taking care of too many patients and doing too many things at the same time. We skip meals to complete our tasks. We don’t have time to go to the bathroom. And we have to try even harder to blend in with other nurses, and especially to get along with our superiors.”

Unlike America and Europe, where about 30 percent of all hospitals are public, public hospitals in Korea account for less than 10 percent of the total. As private hospitals pursue profit rather than patient management, they tend to spend less and less on nurses.

Families of the patients trust the hospital’s quality with their cutting-edge technology and knowledgeable doctors, but they are not satisfied with the time and care of nurses because that they are too hectic with their heavy schedules.

Ganbyeong” has been a major tradition here that even hospitals provide a service when families are too busy, allowing them to buy the services of a caregiver, called “ganbyeongin,” help a single or several patients for a period.

In recent years, however, the time-honored practice has become controversial affected negatively by the outbreak of Middle East Respiration Syndrome. With family members going in and out of MERS-affected hospitals, many Koreans have contracted the virus, which claimed 36 lives in 2015, with the domestic media blaming the practice for the spread.

To prevent hospital-acquired infections, the Ministry of Health and Welfare asked visitors to hospitals to register at the entrance _ unlike in the past when almost anyone, including friends, families, and acquaintances could enter hospital wards _ while minimizing the number of visitors. The ministry has also reduced the number of six patients in one room, from six to four, with rotating visitors to stop over or sleep.

Even the fear of MERS or tightened regulations has failed to stop this practice entirely, though. If you pass through the corridors or poke your head into a room, you can see families strolling around, guiding their relative on their wheelchair or spoon-feeding to their sick sons or sisters in their hospital bed. Ganbyeong will be around as long as there are sick members in your family.


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