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Korea plans to start telemedicine in 2015

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said Tuesday that it will push ahead with telemedicine despite resistance from doctors as part of its effort to improve the medical welfare of the public and curb medical costs.

Telemedicine refers to the use of information-communication technologies for the delivery of clinical care. It can help people consult with and get prescriptions from doctors without having to travel to hospitals.

The ministry on Tuesday filed a public notification of a new bill to introduce the remote diagnosis and treatment.

Telemedicine service has been at the center of debate in the medical sector for years.

Doctors have been vehemently opposed to the high-tech service for fear that it would worsen the imbalance in the nation’s delivery of medical care.

The government, meanwhile, has been pushing ahead with the plan to promote the domestic medical equipment industry and create new job opportunities.

According to the ministry’s plan, the service will be restrictively permitted to patients who require regular and a long-term medical checkup but are not in critical condition. The list of patients eligible for the telemedicine service includes those diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes and mental disorders. Patients who had surgery but were discharged from hospital will also be included for follow-up examination, the ministry said.

The new technology would also benefit those who are in remote areas where it is difficult to access advanced medical services as well as patients in the military, correctional facilities and victims of sexual violence.

It is the first time for the government to allow the delivery of medical care through IT technologies between doctors and patients.

The current law bans telemedicine, except for medical staff or nurses stationed at public health centers in isolated villages so that they can seek medical knowledge or technology from remote doctors to treat patients.

Despite its advanced ICT infrastructure, Korea is the only country in the world where the practice is banned by law.

The Korean Medical Association, a lobby group for physicians, lashed out at the ministry’s decision, saying it would damage medical services.

“Telemedicine that examines a patient without a face-to-face consultation would undermine the fundamentals of medical service,” said KMA spokesman Song Hyung-kon. The group argued that it would further drive patients toward large hospitals in Seoul, leaving local clinics behind.

Considering the concern, the ministry said it will allow only primary care providers such as doctors at local clinics to practice telemedicine.

The ministry said it would seek social consensus and finalize the plan. Officials plan to submit the bill to the parliament by the end of the year or in January next year. If it gets parliamentary approval by June, telemedicine will be delivered in July at the earliest.

“It is hard to say when, but it may be a year later if it gets (parliamentary) approval,” an official said.

By Cho Chung-un (