Published : 2013-10-23 19:18
Updated : 2013-10-23 19:18
A clash is looming between the government and physicians over the introduction of telemedicine, the delivery of medical care using telecommunications technologies.
Telemedicine enables patients in remote regions to receive care from doctors without having to travel to visit them. Yet it is banned in Korea, a country known for its advanced ICT infrastructure.
Economic ministries have long sought to lift the ban to increase medical welfare for people and curb medical costs. They also believe telemedicine can give a big boost to the domestic medical equipment industry and create new job opportunities.
Yet the medical community has strongly opposed any attempt to roll out telemedicine services on the grounds that they would worsen the imbalance in the nation’s medical care delivery system.
Korea’s health system is dominated by large general hospitals, with the primary care system based on community clinics and public health centers remaining underdeveloped.
Physicians fear that a widespread practice of telemedicine would further drive patients toward large hospitals in Seoul, threatening the existence of community clinics and eroding the shaky foundations of the primary care system.
Building a stronger primary care system is the key to keeping people healthy and reducing the incidence of chronic diseases. This will ultimately help rein in health costs.
The medical community’s concern about telemedicine is shared by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which has been, unlike economic ministries, cautious about embracing it.
Yet the ministry has finally decided to introduce it. Last week it said it would submit a bill on telemedicine to the National Assembly for passage during the ongoing session.
To ease physicians’ concern, it plans to allow only primary care providers to practice telemedicine. This proposal makes sense as it would help the nation tap into the benefits of telemedicine without hurting the primary care system. It would also spur the medical equipment industry to develop new products.
Yet it was met with harsh criticism from the medical community. The Korean Medical Association, a lobby group for physicians, condemned the ministry, saying its plan would wipe out neighborhood clinics in local areas.
Arguing that the ministry’s proposal is doomed to failure, physicians threatened to organize outdoor protest rallies if it pushed ahead with its plan.
Physicians’ reaction is excessive. They should be more willing to find a way that would enable the nation to benefit from telemedicine. Currently, Korea is the only country in the world where it is banned by law. This is utter nonsense. The nation can excel other countries in this new mode of medical services. We should give it a try.