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Health minister urges doctors to call off strike

Moon says doctors are misguided over telemedicine and for-profit subsidiaries, suggests open discussion

Moon Hyung-pyo
Moon Hyung-pyo
Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo on Wednesday demanded doctors withdraw their plan to stage a walkout this month, stressing that the government’s new medical policies are not aimed at liberalizing the country’s health care system.

“The government’s plan to allow hospitals to establish for-profit subsidiaries is not intended to break down their current governance structure but is to enhance their management efficiency,” Moon said in a meeting with reporters in Seoul.

The minister suggested launching a private consultative body with stakeholders in the country’s medical sector to resolve contentious issues.

“I hope to resolve the matters through conversation. I believe doctors are highly ethical people. I urge them not to take actions that would directly threaten public health,” he said.

The comment came a month after doctors threatened to stage a walkout.

The Korea Medical Association, a lobby group for physicians, said they would finalize a walkout plan this weekend, adding that the government’s plan is a step to liberalize the country’s medical services and would hurt their business.

Late last year, related ministries also announced a joint 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.

Officials say that the plan was designed to draw local and foreign investment to the medical sector so that hospitals could become financially independent to the extent that they could make investments for the development of medical science.

The plan is also aimed at promoting medical tourism, citing successful cases in Singapore and Thailand, they said.

However, doctors say that the plan is a prelude to the introduction of for-profit hospitals in Korea. Currently, Korean hospitals are operated by non-profit foundations and are required to reinvest all profits back into the hospitals. But if the hospitals are allowed to seek profits, they will lure wealthy patients away, differentiate medical services and activate the market price mechanism in the current health industry, the KMA said. Concerns from patient groups have been also growing. Rumors have spread fast online that patients could end up paying as much as 10 times more than what they are paying now for simple medical operations, such as an appendectomy.

Doctors are also against the government’s plan to introduce telemedicine in 2015.

“Telemedicine” refers to the use of information technologies for the delivery of clinical care. Doctors fear that the new measures would lower the quality of medical services and jeopardize the operation of local clinics and regional hospitals. The introduction of telemedicine alone will cut at least 50,000 jobs, they added.

The health minister, however, said the doctors are protesting against the plans because they are misguided.

“I understand their concerns. But I believe they have a misguided understanding of the new policies. I will open communication channels with them and (we will) find a solution together,” he said.

This was the first time the minister has voiced concerns over the intensifying disputes surrounding the country’s welfare and health policies.

Since his inauguration in December last year, the U.S.-educated pension expert has been facing a daunting task to deal with a wide range of contentious issues, such legislation for the watered down basic pension bill, introduction of telemedicine and enhanced medical coverage by state insurance programs.

By Cho Chung-un (