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[Editorial] Doctors’ collective action

Dialogue is a better way to sort out problems

Doctors are threatening to refuse to see patients starting Saturday unless the government withdraws its plans to introduce telemedicine and allow hospitals to establish for-profit subsidiaries.

To prevent the announced collective action, the government proposed setting up a consultative body with physicians to discuss all pending issues related to health care and medical services, including raising medical fees.

But the Korea Medical Association, a powerful lobby group of physicians, is saying it will go ahead with the strike unless the government backtracks on its plans.

Doctors have the right to express their views through collective action. But they would be better off sorting out the problems through dialogue than resorting to an act that is bound to invite criticism from the public as well as their patients.

Physicians oppose telemedicine on the grounds that it would worsen the already serious concentration of patients in large hospitals by facilitating patients’ access to renowned hospitals in large cities.

This concern is valid. So the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which plans to roll out telemedicine in 2015, intends to allow only primary care providers, which refer to community clinics and public health centers, to practice telemedicine. This approach is cautious and sensible.

Doctors also say telemedicine cannot substitute for face-to-face treatments. They are right. Under the government plan, telemedicine is not intended to replace face-to-face care. It is designed to supplement face-to-face visits for the disabled or senior patients who are unable to move freely.

The medical community also opposes the government’s scheme to allow hospitals to set up subsidiaries to engage in businesses incidental to medical services, such as medical tourism, development of health food supplements and the operation of welfare facilities for the elderly.

Physicians say that the plan will divert the attention of hospitals away from treating patients to money-making businesses. They fail to see the main purpose of the scheme.

Currently, there is no way hospitals can attract fresh capital from outside investors. The plan is designed to work around this problem. It will allow hospitals to tap into private investment through subsidiaries. This way, they can earn more profits, which can be channeled back into hospital expansion or modernization.

Physicians’ objections to the government’s plans are thus not well founded. So some analysts say their main motivation lies in their desire to raise medical fees.

The government appears to be willing to adjust doctors’ fees to some degree to placate their discontent. But it needs to be prudent because any increase in physician payment will translate into a corresponding hike in health insurance costs.