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[Herald Interview] Health Ministry pursues ‘people-first’ diplomacy in Vietnam through health care partnership

Health authorities of Korea and Vietnam are seeking to expand collaboration to boost the adoption of affordable health care and facilitate medical exchanges during an upcoming visit to Vietnam by a delegation led by Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip.

Kim and the ministry’s 11 policy directors and chief officers are visiting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh from Tuesday to Thursday to discuss bilateral health care projects with Vietnamese counterparts, including Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Le Tan Dung and Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Truong Son.

Strengthening friendly ties with Vietnam is the primary objective of the visit, said Kim during an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday, calling the Southeast Asian country a “key partner” to Korea.

Korea and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding in 2008 for enhanced cooperation in health care. They reaffirmed commitments to the agreement through a revision signed in March. 

Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, Monday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, Monday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

According to government data, Korea was the sixth leading exporter of pharmaceuticals and medical appliances to Vietnam in 2018.

Kim said more concrete implementation of the partnership will be accomplished with the August visit, including the establishment of a support institution for users and providers of Korean health services in Vietnam.

The institution will help Korean health institutes and companies in Vietnam or those seeking to enter the market adjust to local regulations and ensure the safety of their services.

“Broadening the availability of medical services is important. But an even greater consideration is the impact a medical procedure gone wrong, even a minor one, will have on the patient and his or her family,” Kim said, stressing that in medicine safety trumps all.

The law on international patients and the export of medical services, which came into effect in June 2016, is aimed at protecting foreign patients and allowing for services catered to their needs, according to Kim.

If suspicions of medical malpractice or an accident arise, there are measures in place to address and resolve them, Kim said. The ministry-operated Korea Medical Dispute Meditation and Arbitration Agency mediates medical disputes and provides free consultations.

On top of aiding private health care entities’ operations in Vietnam, the ministry will also assist with laying the groundwork for the country’s public health care system, Kim said.

“Korea’s health care and welfare schemes are well commended, and a lot of countries, including Vietnam, have shown interest in learning about our system.

“A state health care system should be three things in order to be deemed successful,” Kim said. “First, it should be superior in quality in terms of its care and service. Second, it should be accessible to anyone who may need it. Lastly, it must be financially sustainable.”

“The Korean health care model boasts both quality-assured sustainability and accessibility,” he said. “The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average for health spending as a share of GDP (gross domestic product) is around 9 percent. Korea’s stands at slightly above 7 percent -- so it is at a sustainable level. As for accessibility, there are not that many countries where one can see a medical specialist at any given time at an affordable cost.”

Kim pointed to an aging population as a challenge faced by both countries, a factor that highlights the need for building a solid social safety net.

“Vietnam is one of the countries experiencing a rapidly aging population. In any aging society, the cost of health care increases at a fast rate,” Kim said, emphasizing the importance of a systematic management of state health care program.

 As part of the March revision to the memorandum of understanding, the ministry will help legislate, establish and operate Vietnam’s health professional licensing institute by 2021.

“Korea could not have made the progress it has made today had it not for aids from the international community,” Kim said. “Exchanges in health and medicine is about assuring right to life and health, and a path toward co-prosperity.”

“By sharing Korea’s accumulated data, we hope to have an effective public health system in place in countries which may lack it, in a shortened period of time.”

Korea and Vietnam share a mutual history with much room for empathy, Kim said. Both have experienced separation into North and South, and have had to rebuild after devastating wars. Friendship could deepen from the partnership in healthcare, he said.

Kim said he believes “people-first” diplomacy can be achieved through collaboration in health and welfare fields, “at the heart of which lies caring for people.”

“Expanding the universal right to health care, not immediate economic gains, is the aim of these exchanges,” he said.

By Kim Arin (