With the inter-Korean relations improving after the South-North summit and the summit between North Korea and the U.S., people are raising hope for exchanges between two Koreas in the healthcare sector.
However, experts said South Korea needs a systematic preparation, rather than a hasty approach, considering the North’s social infrastructure and other situations.
Ihn Yo-han, president of the Korea Foundation for International Healthcare (KOFIH), shared his experiences of visiting the North, at a policy debate on expanding inter-Korean exchanges in the healthcare sector at the National Assembly on Tuesday.
“North Korean doctors are good at surgeries, and they do everything they can if they have something in their hands. However, water and electricity are not always accessible. The situation is worse in regions outside Pyongyang,” Ihn said. “There are more than 200 military hospitals in the North, but it is impossible to get an accurate diagnosis there. X-ray machines are not in operation, and you can’t have any serum or blood test. They rarely have ultrasound equipment.”
When the infrastructure is so weak in the North, there is nothing a South Korean physician could do there, Ihn added.
He suggested the South help the North build necessary infrastructure including water and electricity supply, support diagnostic devices, and then start exchanging human resources.
Ihn noted that the South should prepare to deal with tuberculosis (TB), which could become a serious issue in case of a reunification of the two Koreas.
“The South will have to spend the most on fighting TB after a reunification. Many North Korean TB patients are drug resistant. However, North Korean doctors cannot stop prescribing the first-line medicines because there is no second-line or third-line treatment. TB nursing homes have become multidrug-resistant TB factories,” he said.
Ihn said the South should establish a body to specialize in controlling TB only, adding that the state and private TB associations should merge.
A North Korean defector and a physician said inter-Korean exchanges in the healthcare sector should focus on educating how to use medical devices for better diagnosis.
“Based on my experiences caring both for North and South Korean patients, the biggest hurdle for North Korean doctors is that they lack opportunities to use ultrasound, MRI, or X-ray. We need an educational environment to help North Korean doctors make use of the medical equipment,” said Choi Hee-ran, the North Korean defector and physician at Shin Hye Sung Clinic.
Kim Young-hoon, a professor at Korea University’s College of Medicine, said the South has many viral diseases but the North still has bacterial diseases.
“We need a thorough preparation for various diseases in case of inter-Korean exchanges. We need a strategic approach, not just cooperating with the North for just short-timed events,” Kim said.
Kim suggested making an inter-Korean hotline to prevent epidemic on the Korean Peninsula, conduct a fact-finding survey to check the North Koreans’ health and disease status, and establish a North-South joint disease control organization.
Cho Won-joon, a healthcare specialist member of the ruling Democratic Party’s policy committee, said the South learned a lesson from the past that inter-Korean healthcare exchanges could not become sustainable unless they go along with the economic exchanges.
“If exchanges in healthcare fail to have a positive impact on the economies of the two Koreas, these will stop someday and hit a snag due to political criticisms that the South wasted money for nothing,” he said.
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