Disputes escalate over telemedicine

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jan 28, 2014 - 19:57
  • Updated : Jan 28, 2014 - 19:57
Political tension over the telemedicine bill reached new heights as President Park Geun-hye ardently supported the plan as a key source of quality jobs in the future, amid mounting criticism from opposition parties, doctors and patients that the plan is a step toward privatizing health services.

President Park said Monday the regulations that currently forbid telemedicine operations have to be lifted, saying it is a “good example” of a service industry that will create quality jobs and generate new income sources. The telemedicine bill was proposed by the government late last year, and could be passed in February when the National Assembly holds an extraordinary session.

In a rare move, the president enthusiastically explained why the nation needed to boost the industry, adding that this was what she had learned from global CEOs during a business forum held last week in Switzerland.

“CEOs of global firms (whom I met) at the forum stressed the potential of the telemedicine market and said that (Korean companies) should take the lead in the market before other companies join in (the competition),” she said during a meeting with senior secretaries on Monday. In order to provide a chance for Korean companies to become leaders in the market, the government needs to lift regulatory hurdles, she added.

Her comments were quickly slammed by independent lawmaker Ahn Cheol-soo, who said that telemedicine, a kind of medical service, is not a subject that should be discussed based on market principles.

“The problem with the government’s medical policies is that (officials) approach them with economic logic,” the former presidential candidate said on Monday.

Ahn went on to say that telemedicine would undermine the essence of medical services and that it is not suitable for patients who require extra care and close examination.

“Patients with low-risk diseases such as those who suffer from diabetes and hypertension and victims of sexual and domestic violence are slated to receive telemedicine service, according to the government plan. But they are the ones who really need to see doctors in person, not through telemedicine,” said Ahn, who recently announced the launch of his new political party in March.

Ahn’s opposition chimes with the main opposition Democratic Party, which had previously vowed to go all-out to block the government’s plan. DP chairman Kim Han-gil also said earlier this month that the medical sector shouldn’t be viewed as a “money-making industrial sector.”

Doctors have also been vehemently opposed to the high-tech service, fearing that it would worsen the imbalance in the nation’s delivery of medical care by wiping out local clinics and lowering the quality of medical services. A major doctor’s group has threatened to launch a nationwide strike on March 3.

Some also speculate that the government has 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 (