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[Editorial] Blinded by self-interest

Physicians should end objection to telemedicine

The results of the second telemedicine trial project are in. The Ministry of Health and Welfare said more than 80 percent of the patients who received telemedical care expressed satisfaction. Encouraged by the outcome, the ministry plans to launch another trial project next month on a much larger scale.

The second project was carried out between March and December last year, involving some 5,300 patients in various places, including islands, remote rural areas, military camps, ocean-going vessels, correctional facilities and elderly nursing homes.

The ministry said 83 percent of the patients in remote island and rural areas and 88 percent of those at elderly care facilities expressed satisfaction with the long-distance medical care they received. The level of satisfaction was higher than the 77 percent recorded in the first trial project in 2014.

The ministry also said that the trial telemedicine system worked without any problems regarding clinical safety, data security or technical stability.

Based on this positive assessment, the ministry said it would expand the scale of the third trial run by increasing the number of participating patients to 12,000.

The ministry’s plan, however, invited criticism from the Korean Medical Association, a lobby organization for physicians. It expressed strong skepticism about the outcome of the second project, claiming that the trial project had not been carried out in a transparent way.

It is true that the second test run was conducted without the participation of the association. Yet it was the association that rejected the ministry’s offer to jointly manage the project.

Physicians running neighborhood clinics have resisted the ministry’s plan to introduce telemedicine, as they are worried that it would drive them out of business by worsening the already serious concentration of patients in a few large general hospitals in Seoul.

Yet these worries are groundless. The government has repeatedly assured that it would allow primary care clinics, not general hospitals, to treat patients with chronic diseases using telemedicine.

Due to physicians’ resistance, the bill on telemedicine, which was submitted to the National Assembly in 2013, is destined to be scrapped with the termination of the 19th Assembly in May.

Telemedicine is an area where Korea can lead the world, given its advanced information technology infrastructure and high-quality medical services. The ministry said it had already concluded deals to export its telemedicine system to seven countries, including Peru, Chile, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Doctors should not be confined to their narrow self-interests and allow the nation to tap into the potential that telemedicine has. It can not only benefit people in areas with little access to medical services but help create jobs.