North Korea’s relatively poor healthcare system is making progress under leader Kim Jong-un, with hospitals getting more modernized and larger, said a report by a South Korean think tank. The North has been paying particular attention to telemedicine in recent years, it said.
North Korea is building large hospitals in major cities and overhauling factories for pharmaceutical and medical products, according to the “North Korea’s Trends on Healthcare System in Kim Jong Un Era,” released by Institute for Health and Unification Studies at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine.
The public healthcare service system in North Korea is categorized by four types of medical institutions in size. Primary institutions are clinics, general clinics, and village-level hospitals. Secondary ones are city-level hospitals in provinces, large-city-level hospitals in metropolitan cities, and county-level hospitals in provincial towns. Tertiary hospitals are called province-level hospitals, including 11 university hospitals and a central hospital in Pyongyang.
Patients who cannot receive treatment at tertiary level are transferred to fourth medical institutions such as Red Cross General Hospital.
According to a joint report by North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organization, the North had 8,988 public health institutions in 2014 – 6,263 village-level clinics and general clinics, 1,608 county and village hospitals, and 133 central and province-level hospitals.
Although North Korean health services are offered for free, non-official healthcare services began to spread from the mid-1990s with an economic downturn. Separately from four types of medical institutions, the private healthcare market took shape when people started purchasing medicines at markets.
In the 2000s, a new class of wealthy people called “donju,” or money owners, invested their money in building pharmaceutical factories and hospitals. In 2005, a private pharmacy appeared.
In the Kim Jong-un era since late 2011, both the public and private healthcare sector has been expanding. The regime is carrying out a state-led hospital modernization project, along with computerizing of medical services for telemedicine.
Four general hospitals started operation recently, and factories for producing IV solutions, pharmaceutical products, and vitamins are under construction.
There has also been a change in nurturing workforce in the public health sector, too. When North Korea revised the tertiary education system in 2015, the medical education has become more integrated and generalized.
For example, Sinuiju Medical University became Pyeongbuk General University’s Medical College, and Gangseon Sariwon Medical University became Hwangbuk National University’s Ganggeon Medical College. Some medical school curricula have special classes to provide professional education for each major, similar to the specialist nurturing system in South Korea.
In the North, medical research institutions are operating under the Ministry of Public Health. The Institute of Medicine, which plays a central role in North Korean medical research, has various research units for medical biology, microbiology, medical instruments, synthetic medicine, natural medicine, pharmacy, and radiology.
Just like the South has the Oriental medicine sector, the North has an agency to study Koryo medicine. The Academy of Koryo Medicine carries out Oriental medicine research, treatment and prevention of diseases, workforce training, and cooperative research with the WHO for traditional medicine.
“We should analyze how the healthcare system in North Korea is changing to prepare for possible aid to North Korea,” the report said. “Based on the analysis, we should prepare various and detailed plans for health and medical care support and healthcare development projects in North Korea,”
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