February 16, 2022 12:56
Demand for online and remote medical services has skyrocketed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and industry watchers believe it is here to stay.
Most telemedical services were banned until February 2020, when the government provisionally permitted them as the pandemic started. The change followed two decades of controversy with heavy opposition from some medical experts.
But amid the recent explosion of cases due to the Omicron variant, COVID patients with mild symptoms are now getting home treatment by phone consultations with medical workers.
"Everything changed with the pandemic," said Ban Ho-young, the co-founder of Neofect, which develops remote rehabilitation services for stroke patients. "Telemedicine services have become common -- not only from progressive providers, but from many providers."
The benefits of telemedicine are especially relevant for Korea. Even before the pandemic, non-contact services were becoming increasingly common.
Korea is also a global leader in the development of information technology. Because that is critical to remote patient care, Korea has a unique advantage in the evolution of telemedicine.
In addition, it has one of the fastest-aging populations in the world, and the proportion of the population with chronic and age-related diseases will continue to grow. "In response to this heavy societal burden, more care needs to be handled at the community level," said Paik Nam-jong, the president of Seoul National University Bundang Hospital. "Telemedicine will be the key."
In the U.S., more than 76 percent of hospitals connect with patients through video appointments.
Ban said this partly because the U.S.' health insurance system. There are many different insurance providers, which allows some insurance companies to provide telemedical care even if others do not. "In Korea, we only have state insurance, so we're very dependent on government policy and telemedicine regulations," Ban said.
Japan is more similar to Korea. Nangaku Masaomi, the vice dean of the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tokyo, said healthcare providers in Japan are hesitant to provide telemedical care because it was illegal in the past.
Like Korea, Japan also has a rapidly aging population. Masaomi noted that the elderly may struggle more with using the required technology. "I think Korea and Japan are facing common problems, both around legal restrictions and reimbursements," Masaomi said. "In Japan, we are currently analyzing the barriers to expanding telemedicine."
Koreans' response to the spread of remote care has been generally positive. According to a survey by the Federation of Korean Industries last year, around 62.1 percent of respondents said they were in favor of telemedicine.
Despite the benefits, there remain barriers. Healthcare professionals are paid less by insurance companies for telemedical care than face-to-face care, according to Paik. The reimbursement process for remote care is also more time-consuming.
Experts also say that further technological developments are necessary. "In case of an ENT hospital, equipment like nasal or ear endoscopes have been distributed, but they have not reached a stage where they can show the inside of the ear or nose perfectly," said Lee Sang-deok, the president of Hana ENT hospital. "It's also necessary to develop a platform where data from such devices can be sent effectively to hospitals."
Proponents in Korea have been encouraging the government to approve remote healthcare services permanently, but an amendment to the current law failed to cross the threshold of the National Assembly.
"It's time for the medical professionals, academics, and the government to start discussing telemedicine more seriously," Lee said. "Telemedicine is not only a key medical service for the present moment but also for the future."
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