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Friday, April 19, 2024

Lack of Korean-speaking psychiatrists, with less than 10 doctors in LA Koreatown

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There is a critical shortage of Korean-speaking psychiatrists in LA Koreatown, raising concerns about language barriers that prevent Koreans from receiving adequate medical care amidst a growing mental health crisis, a situation that may worsen.

The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, under the leadership of Ninez Ponce, released a report on February 29, in collaboration with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition. This report examines mental health issues among Asians in the United States, focusing specifically on Korean Americans. This article will concentrate solely on the Korean and Korean American communities.

The report reveals that one in five (18%) Korean adults (ages 18 and older) require mental health support, a rate higher than the average for Asians (16%).

The urgency increases for Korean adolescents (ages 12-17), with 29% acknowledging the need for mental health support.

Effective mental health counseling hinges on language, as the ability to communicate nuanced emotions is vital for appropriate treatment. However, there is a notable scarcity of Korean-speaking psychiatrists in the area.

The medical community acknowledges that there are fewer than 10 psychiatrists capable of providing psychiatric consultations in Korean in Los Angeles, including professionals like Dr. Man Chul Cho, Susan Jung, Jasung Kim, etc., which is significantly lower than in other medical specialties.

Jennifer Oh, Deputy Director at Korean American Family Services, highlights the issue, “Even including ‘nurse practitioners’ (NPs) certified in psychiatric counseling, the number of Korean-speaking psychiatrists in LA Koreatown is insufficient. As mental health issues like depression and anxiety intensify, the language barrier prevents many Koreans from receiving timely treatment.”

The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research also identifies language as a critical barrier. “Language significantly hinders access to mental health care for the Korean community in California, where almost half have limited English proficiency. Bilingual professionals, in-language services, and Korean materials are essential,” says Ninez Ponce, director of the Policy Research. “Mainstream providers might misdiagnose or overlook mental distress in Koreans, underscoring the need for culturally aligned training and practices.”

Lacking access to Korean-speaking psychiatrists, Koreans often depend on nonprofit organizations for counseling, where securing an appointment can be challenging.

For instance, the wait time for an appointment at Korean American Family Services can extend to four to five months, during which the mental health of those in need may deteriorate.

With the rising prevalence of mental health issues and increasing demand for psychiatric care, the Korean community remains underserved due to this shortage.

Dr. Man Chul Cho, a psychiatrist with 40 years of experience in Koreatown, observes, “I’ve seen second-generation Koreans open clinics in Koreatown and then leave for the mainstream, struggling with cultural differences and the Korean language barrier.”

The U.S. has been integrating foreign-born doctors to mitigate shortages in minority or rural communities. Recruiting psychiatrists from Korea is a potential solution, though not consistently viable.

Data from the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) as of 2022 shows that only 3% of foreign-born doctors in the U.S. are psychiatrists, suggesting an even smaller fraction are Korean-speaking.

Even when Korean American medical students opt for psychiatry, they face language and cultural hurdles with Korean patients.

Dr. Paul Chung from STEM Research notes, “It’s challenging to find Korean American medical students in the second or third generation who fully grasp the Korean culture and language. While more are choosing psychiatry, the impact on Korean-speaking patients remains minimal.”

BY YEJIN KIM, JUNHAN PARK    [kim.yejin3@koreadaily.com]