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Telemedicine Struggles for Support in South Korea

Telemedicine is a touchy subject in South Korea, where the government and doctors are once again clashing over the technology's value.

By Eric Wicklund

- South Korea’s government is pushing ahead with plans to launch a nationwide telemedicine platform despite strong opposition from doctors.

A proposal to revise South Korea’s Medicine Law to allow doctors and patients to connect through information technology, primarily via the Internet, has been presented by the Health Ministry to the nation’s 20th National Assembly. A similar proposal was tabled in 2013 by the 19th National Assembly after the Korean Medical Association and opposition parties protested, saying it would lead to misdiagnoses and data theft.

South Korea had revised its Medicine Law in 2002 to allow only telemedicine consults between clinicians, specifically preventing them from treating patients at a distance. Ironically, the nation is home to several mHealth companies, including Samsung, one of the world’s leaders in mobile health technology.

"It's really embarrassing to meet foreign clients because the first thing they ask me is the telemedicine situation in Korea, which boasts one of the best telecommunication technology in the world," Jeon Jin-ok, CEO of BIT Computer, which provides medical information and telehealth care in other countries, recently told the Seoul Economic Daily. "Each time, I have a really hard time explaining that we have yet to start domestic services because of legal and institutional barriers."

After failing to gain support for a national platform in 2013, the Health Ministry launched a pilot program to provide residents of five remote islands, prison inmates, soldiers along the North Korean border and sailors on deep-sea fishing vessels with online health services. The country has roughly 470 inhabited islands, and officials estimate such a platform could help more than 1 million Koreans.

Government officials said almost 80 percent of the residents using the telemedicine service during the pilot program were satisfied with the results.

In renewing the call for a national telemedicine platform, officials said the service would be limited to “residents with specific medical, social or geographic conditions,” such as elderly residents with chronic conditions, residents recovering at home from a recent surgery, those living in remote areas and those with physical disabilities.

"Telemedicine is meant to address the blind spot of healthcare for those who live on remote islands and for the elderly and disabled," South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in supporting the Health Ministry’s proposal.

The Health Ministry also said no healthcare provider would be allowed to offer only telemedicine services, and that all patients receiving telemedicine services would also be required to regularly visit their physicians in person. 

But the nation’s largest medical organization isn’t swayed. KMA spokesman Kim Joo-hyun called on the ministry to shut down all telemedicine services, saying the pilot program was done “behind closed doors” without input from physicians. 

“We still believe that telemedicine should be done between medical professionals only,” he told The Korea Herald. “Unless the government makes all documents related to the pilot program public, we don’t think we have enough proof that this proposal is going to be safe for all patients nationwide."

"Telemedicine between medical workers and patients is too early," he added.

Dig Deeper:

DoD Expands Telemedicine Access for Military, Families

WHO Unveils Standards for Global mHealth Projects




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