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Doctors split over phone-only prescriptions in COVID-19 emergency

Health workers in protective suits stand next to a line of ambulances outside a hospital in central Daegu. (Yonhap)
Health workers in protective suits stand next to a line of ambulances outside a hospital in central Daegu. (Yonhap)

A doctors’ group in virus-stricken Daegu has argued in support of consultations and prescriptions over the phone to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The Daegu Medical Association’s statement came a day after its parent organization, the Korean Medical Association, clashed with the government Monday over emergency measures that would allow patients to seek prescriptions without seeing doctors face to face.

The KMA had opposed the Health Ministry proposal, saying not only had the government left out health workers in making the decision, but that the measures increased the risk of wrongly diagnosing patients, especially as COVID-19’s symptoms are easily confused with those of flu or the common cold.

“If a patient who should have been tested for the virus is instead given a prescription for cold symptoms, it would delay detection and the patient would be denied the chance of timely treatment,” it said, arguing the measures only created loopholes for misdiagnosis.

But the Daegu medical association said giving consultations by phone would protect doctors and staff from contracting the virus or being quarantined, as most institutions currently face staff shortages.

“We are already running short of medics, and cannot afford losing more of our workforce to quarantine,” it said.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip explained that permitting telephone prescriptions could protect high-risk groups from coming in contact with infected people on the way to or at the doctor’s office, and could prevent potentially contagious individuals from crossing paths with others.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against going to clinics or hospitals when symptoms are mild.

Following the government’s announcement, Seoul National University Hospital started offering telephone counseling and prescriptions for patients in Daegu and nearby North Gyeongsang Province from Tuesday. The hospital said it would provide over-the-phone consultations until the outbreak subsides.

By Kim Arin (