President Moon Jae-in’s campaign pledge that calls for the state to take the responsibility of dementia treatment is emerging as a hot issue.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare has been speeding up efforts to keep the promise by drawing up a supplementary budget of 202.3 billion won ($179.5 million), but many experts are voicing different opinions over the direction in which the policy should be going.
President Moon visited a nursing home located in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, early this month to reaffirm the government’s support for the Alzheimer’s patients by reducing their medical bills, increasing centers for dementia treatment, and building hospitals that exclusively deal with dementia.
|The Ministry of Health and Welfare is announcing policies for implementing state-level support for dementia, but private experts point to the lack of preparations.|
The ministry followed up with Moon’s pledge by announcing plans to reduce individuals’ financial burdens from 20 percent to 10 percent of medical bills and provide insurance coverage for early detection tests that screen for dementia.
It also will reorganize and expand dementia counseling centers installed in 252 public health centers nationwide into “Centers for Dementia,” where nurses and other staff will take care of Alzheimer’s patients. The center will play a role in the prevention and early diagnosis of the disease while providing support for patients and their families, the ministry said.
All this reflects the ministry’s resolve to keep the symptoms of dementia from aggravating and reduce the family’s burden, officials said. To this end, the government will strengthen the functions of 79 public hospitals nationwide to provide special facilities for Alzheimer’s patients, they added.
In the same vein, the ministry plans to increase the number of long-term care facilities for Alzheimer’s from the existing 31 centers to 300 by 2022. Unlike general nursing care facilities, these centers care for only Alzheimer’s patients.
It also will increase the number of people who benefit from these centers, by expanding the scope of beneficiaries, currently limited to grade-5 patients while improving the working conditions of caregivers who care for patients with the disease.
On June 5, the ministry said it had drawn up a supplementary budget of 202.3 billion won to expand the number of dementia support centers from 47 to 252 and supplement the functions of 45 public nursing hospitals.
Private experts, however, criticized the government’s plan, calling for the ministry to train the professional workforce and increase support for research and development.
At a conference held at the National Assembly Monday, these experts representing various related organizations emphasized the need to cultivate specialized workers who can operate these centers properly.
A university professor began the discussion by criticizing the government’s efforts to expand these centers without sufficient specialists.
“The ministry is claiming that it will create more than 200 centers out of nowhere, but I believe that it is impossible,” said Park Kun-woo박건우, a neurologist at Korea University Anam Hospital고려대안암병원. “Previous efforts to do so have failed because they did not have enough specialists to work at these centers.”
He went on to say, “We have to think about why we don’t have enough experts: Doctors who treat Alzheimer’s disease are those that could not, for one reason or another, work at other hospitals. Care centers that treat the disease also do not make a profit. Even if the government hires a neurologist to work at these centers, the government will not give them more money.”
The professor added that dementia is a painful disease from which doctors are “running away.” To make matters worse, doctors have no incentives to care for dementia patients. Park urged the government to create incentives for physicians to work at these centers, saying that “the government cannot create more than 200 centers by appealing to patriotism alone.”
Another expert pointed to the structural problems surrounding these centers.
"I ran one of these centers in Seocho-gu, Seoul, when it first opened, and the biggest problem is that the whole center is performance-driven,” said Professor Lim Hyun-Kook임현국 of the Department of Mental Health at Mary's Hospital. “Employees worked like robots, doing routine work. These centers are also run by public health centers, and therefore are under the control and management of public health centers.”
Lim called for finding ways to manage Alzheimer’s patients and increasing workforce while figuring out how to reduce disease occurrence.
Ahn Moo-yong안무영, chairman of the Korean Society of Dementia Korean Dementia Association대한치매학회, called for strengthening dementia research since "diagnosis and treatment are important, the research support for this field should come from the national level." A neurologist from Hanyang University Guri Hospital also stressed the need for the government’s support for dementia research.
“Currently, several agencies provide sporadic support for Alzheimer’s-related research through their respective business areas, making it a rat race to achieve short-term results rather than long-term studies, said Choi Ho-jin최호진 a neurologist at Hanyang University Guri Hospital한양대구리병원.
“It's hard to see the effects of spending by just expanding the research budget without restructuring the current situation,” Choi added, "We should not worry too much about finding financial resources but more about changing research system."
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