Lack of rehab centers leaves disabled at risk

The number of patients with a physical handicap in Korea is sharply increasing but rehabilitation facilities to help them readjust to society are far short of covering the growing need, experts said.

According to Rep. Lee Mok-hee of the Democratic United Party, the number of disabled registered with the government jumped from 1.45 million in 2003 to 2.52 million last year.

However, there were only 18 rehabilitation hospitals for the disabled around the country as of 2010, mostly in Seoul and neighboring cities. Cities far from Seoul such as Gwangju and Ulsan don’t have any proper rehabilitation and welfare services for the disabled, the lawmaker said in a recent parliamentary audit session.

Building more rehab hospitals has been an urgent task for health authorities for many years.

The central and local governments have invested 27 billion won to build six rehabilitation hospitals in major cities in Korea ― Incheon, Busan, Chuncheon, Gwangju, Daejeon and Jeju ― to meet a growing need for rehabilitative care. Started in 2006, the state-funded project will be completed in December this year. The new rehabilitation centers will facilitate 150 beds on average.

But this won’t be enough to provide better and immediate service for the disabled, Rep. Lee said.

“For instance, there are more than 353,000 people with disabilities in Korea’s southeastern region registered as of 2010. Even if the new rehabilitation hospital with 150 beds in Busan opens at the end of this year, it is nearly impossible to cover the growing need in the region,” he said.

Intensive rehabilitation care is crucial at the early stages of disability because it helps sufferers become independent in their daily lives as well as become part of society again. Without rehabilitation programs and other support, the disabled would also increase their reliance not only on their families but also society, experts warned.

The government also needs to nurture specialized personnel, therapists and doctors to operate a variety of rehabilitation programs.

“In Europe, there are many rehabilitation hospitals that are specialized with specific injuries. For an example, in the United Kingdom, there are 11 rehab centers specializing in spinal cord injuries,” said Lee Bum-suk, director of National Rehabilitation Center. The NRC, located in Seoul, is the country’s only state-funded rehab institution.

The number of private hospitals that offer inpatient rehabilitation is rapidly growing as they find it profitable, Lee said. However, most private hospitals end up providing medical services, not core rehabilitation programs such as driving practice, sex life, wheelchair shopping and sports.

“Those programs are essential for the disabled to help them adjust to a new life. But most private hospitals don’t operate these programs because they don’t make money at all. They need to play a public role here,” said Lee.