In South Korea, ‘Ghost Surgeries’ Lead to Cameras in Hospitals

In May of last year, video footage emerged from a spinal clinic, Incheon 21st Century Hospital, that showed nursing assistants performing incisions and putting in sutures. Choi Jeong-kyu, a lawyer who has represented medical malpractice victims, said he received the footage from someone who had worked at the clinic and recorded it secretly. Mr. Choi passed it on to the broadcaster MBC.

Nineteen surgeries were captured in the footage, which showed three nursing assistants operating on patients’ spines. Surgical machines buzzed as the assistants, looking through a medical microscope, used them on patients’ bones and bloody gauze piled up on one side of the surgical table. During each operation, a surgeon eventually appeared and worked on the patient for about five minutes.

“They were treating patients like objects on a conveyor belt in a factory,” Mr. Choi said. “It’s frightening.”

After the video emerged, prosecutors filed suit against the clinic. Five doctors, three of whom were the clinic’s directors, and three nursing assistants were arrested in August. In February, a court found them guilty of unlicensed medical practices and fraud. They were sentenced to up to two years in prison and fined up to 7 million won, about $5,700, each.

The clinic’s directors — Hyun Yong-in, Jung Hyun-tae and Lee Wan-soo — had booked as many patients and surgeries as possible when staffing levels were low, the court found. They had carried out the crime “systematically” and “for the purpose of profit,” and had “undermined patients’ legitimate trust in doctors and medical institutions,” the verdict read.

The defendants have appealed the verdict. None of the doctors’ medical licenses were permanently revoked. The clinic has closed. And the case boosted support for the camera mandate, which goes into effect in September 2023. Lawyers for the defendants, reached by phone, declined to comment, citing the pending appeal.