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[Health-tech Korea] What it takes to boost Korea’s digital health care

Digital healthcare expert and DHP Korea chief Choi Yoon-sup discusses vision for Korea’s digital healthcare sector

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles highlighting South Korea’s promising start-ups in the emerging sectors of digital healthcare and next-generation medical devices. This is the first installment. –Ed.

Digital technologies continually transform every industry, but one area that technological advances are forecast to impact the most in the years ahead is the global health care sector.

Eyeing new opportunities, global tech companies, medical device firms as well as startups have begun to embrace the field of “digital health care” -- the convergence of the latest digital and mobile technologies with medical services and health care.

And South Korea, home to a strong tech workforce, is no exception. Several local startups are seeking success in digital health care with unique, cutting-edge devices and services, according to the Managing Partner of local startup accelerator Digital Healthcare Partners.

Choi Yoon-sup, Managing Partner at Digital Healthcare Partners (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Choi Yoon-sup, Managing Partner at Digital Healthcare Partners (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“Korea currently possesses globally competitive technologies that are of immense value to the health care industry, including artificial intelligence, deep learning, cloud computing and genome sequencing capabilities,” Choi Yoon-sup said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“However, cutting-edge technologies alone obviously cannot guarantee a successful business,” he said, highlighting that compared to other industries, tech-driven firms seeking entry into the health care market face higher barriers.

According to Choi, the health care sector by nature involves a more diverse set of stakeholders compared to other industries -- ranging from big companies, startups and venture capital funds to regulatory bodies, hospitals, doctors as well as patients.

This means that interested companies must not only develop the right technology but also navigate the complex task of satisfying diverse players in the field of health care.

In the absence of a clear roadmap or systematic approach to tackling this complex task, Choi, one of Korea’s few experts on digital health care, is looking to lend a hand in filling this gap.

“My personal goal as well as the mission of DHP is to build up a stable ecosystem for digital health care startups … to develop a win-win system that can satisfy the needs of every stakeholder,” he said.

The newly-founded startup accelerator is led by Choi, who holds a Ph.D. in computational science, and two partners who are doctors. All three are experts in digital health care and already serve as advisers to leading startups in the segment such as Noom, Zikto and Vuno.

The team believes it can parlay its field knowledge and direct ties to Korea’s medical sector -- including the Drug Ministry, which regulates medical devices -- to entrepreneurs navigating their way in the emerging digital health care market here.

“We want to discover more promising digital health care startups in Korea, nurture them in the right direction, plug them into an ‘inner circle’ of stakeholders in the health care sector and support them through investment,” Choi said.

While private entities such as DHP can pioneer efforts to build up a new ecosystem to guide digital health care businesses, Choi noted there are broader challenges that the Korean government must tackle to encourage more innovation in tech-driven health care.

The 35-year-old executive singled out two structural hurdles that weigh down the growth of Korea’s digital health care business today: a lack of incentive to develop new products and services in the digital sector, and unclear regulations governing this field.

Ironically, the fact that Korea offers easy access to hospitals and clinics has played a role in discouraging the development of digital-driven health services here such as telemedicine -- the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients -- as well as mobile health care innovations.

For instance, the US offers poorer accessibility to health care than Korea. Most patients here can arrange to see a doctor immediately as needed, at affordable prices, but it would take weeks and cost more to access similar services in many cities in the US, Choi said.

“Given this, the US has had to envision new ways to drive down health care costs and improve accessibility, arriving at new concepts such as telemedicine and smartphone-based diagnostics services. However, Korea -- home to accessible and more affordable health care -- has found less motivation to explore this field,” he said.

Establishing or revising medical regulations in step with emerging technologies is another major issue that Korea’s government must handle to expedite the growth of the digital health care segment, said the DHP executive.

This includes drawing up clear guidelines -- which avoid overregulation without compromising safety -- for new health care inventions such as medical devices equipped with artificial intelligence as well as wearables to monitor and detect certain symptoms.

“Uncertainty is a huge risk for any company starting a business. In health care, this would mean knowing the exact regulations or categorization a product would face,” Choi said, stressing the need to prioritize swift and efficient regulatory reform in line with new digital shifts.

Despite being new, there is no doubt that the digital health care sector will remain small, Choi said, citing the push for health care from global tech giants such as Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Market research company Global Market Insights predicts the digital health market will reach 379 million by 2024, led by the continued emergence of health care IT coupled with growing smartphone penetration.

“As of now, the gap between big companies and startups in the newly-forming digital health care (market) is not huge. However, this gap is quickly growing,” Choi said.

“Korea is said to have already lost the so-called ‘golden time’ to enter this sector. It’s in a position where it must hurry to catch up.” 

By Sohn Ji-young (
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