Seoul National University Hospital has begun to provide a telemedicine service to coronavirus patients near the epicenter South Korea's virus outbreak.
A team of four doctors and 13 nurses at the general hospital in Seoul can monitor the status of COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms through video calls.
The team can also diagnose and write prescriptions for the patients quarantined at a state-run treatment center located in Mungyeong, a city about 180 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
Telemedicine is designed to provide health care to people who live in hard-to-reach areas such as remote islands by connecting patients to doctors over the internet.
In principle, telemedicine is banned in South Korea. However, the government has in recent years allowed limited telemedicine on a trial basis despite fierce opposition from doctors who question the safety of the service.
The situation has changed due to the rapid spread of the new coronavirus in South Korea. COVID-19 has killed 67 people in South Korea, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, and infected nearly 8,000 others.
The government opened state-run isolation facilities in the hardest-hit region to quarantine and monitor COVID-19 patients who have shown mild symptoms after criticism that people with severe symptoms were not being properly treated due to the lack of hospital beds.
The government has so far opened 16 community centers that can admit up to 3,800 patients in the southeastern city of Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang Province.
"We are able to perform perfect telemedicine in the disaster areas of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province where the number of COVID-19 patients has spiked," said Kim Yeon-soo, director at the Seoul National University Hospital.
Kim noted that virtual visits by doctors and nurses are a new way of safely treating patients and of containing the illness' spread in hospitals and clinics.
The center is equipped with medical staff but local health authorities have decided to deploy minimal personnel to limit person-to-person contact as much as possible.
Nurses hold video calls with patients through smartphones twice a day and doctors talk to patients every other day, the hospital said.
Still, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), which represents over 105,000 physicians across the country, has continued its opposition, citing safety concerns and other potential problems.
"There will be huge repercussions if something goes wrong with even one out of 100 patients after the approval of telemedicine," Park Jong-hyuk, a KMA spokesperson, said. "Moreover, the current system is only capable of monitoring patients." (Yonhap)