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Doctors protest telemedicine, for-profit operations

Doctors protest telemedicine, for-profit operations

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Published : 2013-12-19 20:01
Updated : 2013-12-19 20:01

Doctors protest the government’s plan to allow telemedicine and for-profit hospital subsidiaries at a rally organized by the Korea Medical Association in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap News)

The government’s plans to allow telemedicine and for-profit hospital subsidiaries have riled the medical sector as doctors are concerned that the moves would pave the way for the privatization of medical services and hurt their business.

Thousands of medical doctors took to the streets last weekend in protest of the government’s latest medical service development plans.

In October, the Ministry of Health and Welfare released a final plan to start telemedicine in 2015.

Last week, the government announced a plan to allow hospitals to establish subsidiaries to engage in incidental businesses, mergers and acquisitions among medical institutions, and to lift the cap on the number of foreign patients.

Doctors fear that the new measures would lower the quality of medical services and jeopardize operations of local clinics and regional hospitals. The introduction of telemedicine alone will cut at least 50,000 jobs, they added.

The government as well as the ruling Saenuri Party seem to be at a loss as doctors threaten to take action over the plans.

Choi Won-young, senior presidential secretary for employment and welfare affairs, said the introduction of telemedicine services is meant to help people without access to medical services, not to privatize the sector.

Lee Young-chan, vice health minister, also stressed that the plans are not aimed at privatizing the sector. The ministry, in consultation with the ruling Saenuri Party, decided to ban the operation of medical institutions specialized in telemedicine services. In its revised plan, the government will also have patients receiving telemedicine services visit clinics regularly.

But the doctors refused to step back.

At the rally held on Sunday in Yeouido, some doctors took extreme actions such as shaving their heads in front of the public in a show of protest. Roh Hwan-kyu, president of the Korea Medical Association, a lobby group of physicians, even hurt himself while making a speech to his fellow doctors.

“If the government keeps ignoring doctors’ call and forces us to accept bureaucratic measures, (we will stop providing) medical services in Korea,” Roh said, implying that his organization would go as far as refusing to treat patients.

“The government in words says it would save the medical industry by introducing telemedicine and attracting investment, but in fact, it is tightening the pressure upon us,” he added.

The doctors’ protest, however, drew mixed reactions.

Some observers say that the government is just trying to enhance patients’ medical access. The doctors’ collective actions are being seen as an attempt to secure their own profits and for their own good, they added.

But others criticize the government, saying it must have been pressured by Korean conglomerates such as Samsung to open ways to develop the health care industry by allowing telemedicine services. Samsung plans to invest 23 trillion won by 2020 in the health and medical equipment sectors.

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)

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