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‘Revolutionary Change’ Needed to Make Telehealth a Reality in South Korea

Despite a new pilot program serving seniors and several overseas partnerships, South Korea's government can't convince its own doctors to support new telehealth legislation.

By Eric Wicklund

- South Korea is set to embark on its third telemedicine pilot, and is trumpeting new projects in Africa and South America. Yet one of the planet’s most wired nations is still a long way off from a national program, due to strong distrust from doctors and several cybersecurity gaffes.

Earlier this month, South Korea’s Health and Welfare Ministry announced it will expand a pilot program enabling seniors in some 5,000 nursing homes to receive telehealth care. This follows earlier programs targeting islanders and isolated villages, nationals living overseas, deep-sea fishing vessels, prisons and soldiers stationed along the border with North Korea.

The pilot programs enable doctors to connect via telehealth with patients, even though South Korea’s Medicine Law restricts telehealth to consultations between clinicians. Efforts by the government to change that law have been under way for more than a decade, and a similar bill facing the National Assembly later this year will undoubtedly face heated opposition.

Much of the opposition comes from the Korean Medical Association, which represents more than 100,000 doctors in the nation of 5.4 million residents. The KMA scuttled efforts for telehealth legislation in 2014 with a walkout and threats of a much longer strike, and has forbid its members from participating in any of the government’s pilots.

In a statement issued in 2013, the KMA warned that telemedicine would “cause a medical catastrophe (that) threatens the health of the people, shaking a national healthcare system.”

“Community clinics and small and medium regional hospitals depend on geographic proximity to operate and will almost certainly go out of business,” the organization warned, adding that the industry would then be dominated by “specialized institutions” that value profit over health.

The KMA also warned of data security risks – a very real concern, considering the country shares a border with North Korea. A study commissioned in 2015 by the organization uncovered a wide range of security lapses in healthcare, and earlier this year police uncovered a North Korean hack on a Seoul University hospital that had gone undetected for eight months.

Undaunted, government officials are promoting the latest telemedicine project as a step forward for a nation dealing with soaring chronic disease rates and healthcare costs. Just this weekend, President Park Geun-hye called on “active cooperation” from her country’s political and medical groups to support the new program.

They’re also touting new projects overseas. On Aug. 1 Park announced a project negotiated by government officials, the KT Corporation and Severance Hospital to launch a telemedicine platform in Rwanda, “marking the first step of Korea’s global telemedicine project supported by government, business and hospital.” It’s the seventh memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the government to provide such services to another country.

Meanwhile, Gachon University Gil Hospital is partnering with Peru's Cayetano Heredia Hospital on a telemedicine project in that country, while Seoul’s St. Mary’s Hospital is working with a hospital in Shanghai and the Yonsei University Health System is partnering with a university health system in the Philippines. Korea University Anam Hospital, meanwhile, is in talks with healthcare networks in Colombia, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Critics say the country has to ensure that the nation’s small hospitals and clinics aren’t pushed out of business by the new technology, and that the federal government can ensure that health data is protected and used solely for healthcare.

“Civic groups like us have been following the technology for a while and really want to see what good telemedicine and digital healthcare can do, but the evidence just hasn’t come out yet,” Chung Hyung-jun, a rehabilitative physician and strategic director of non-profit Association of Physicians for Humanism, said in a recent interview. “There needs to be some revolutionary change before it’s feasible.”

Dig Deeper:

Telemedicine Struggles for Support in South Korea

mHealth Gives Children a Reason to Smile


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