The government said it would push for a nationwide introduction of telemedicine amid the new coronavirus pandemic, but the medical community vehemently opposed the plan.
The Ministry of SMEs and Startups said on Thursday it has designated additional businesses in the regulation-free zone for digital healthcare in Gangwon Province and the regulation-free zone for self-driving cars in Sejong.
The Gangwon zone, in particular, added seven primary medical institutions to run a pilot telemedicine program for elderly patients and those with chronic diseases living in remote places where medical access is difficult. The program will also prevent Covid-19 infection between doctors and patients.
For a smooth operation of the program, the government also included in the Gangwon zone two companies specializing in the remote service system and four industry-academic collaboration groups, including Yonsei University Wonju Industry-Academic Cooperation Foundation.
Initially, primary medical institutions were reluctant to participate in telemedicine, and telemedicine project was drifting. However, the latest participation of the seven primary institutions will help the government operate the program as scheduled from late May, the SMEs and startups ministry said.
The Ministry of Economy and Finance also said it is necessary to introduce telehealth and hoped that members of the 21st National Assembly would actively discuss it.
“To introduce contactless healthcare services, we need legal and institutional foundation such as revision of the Medical Service Act,” said Vice Finance Minister Kim Yong-beom said in a briefing on Thursday. “In this process, we also need to review the issues of liability, reimbursement charges, and the polarization of the service raised by the medical community.”
The government’s move touched off vehement resistance from doctors.
Choi Dae-zip, president of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), said in his Facebook homepage that the doctors’ group would never accept the government’s plan to allow telemedicine and increase the quota of medical school students.
The KMA opposes the government’s push to establish a state-run medical school in Namwon, North Jeolla Province, where Seonam University College of Medicine had been shut down.
“If the government tries to go ahead with the plans forcefully, we will start a radical fight,” he said.
Choi criticized the government for using the Covid-19 crisis as a pretext to allow telemedicine, which the KMA has persistently opposed to. “How can the government try to forcefully push for telemedicine when most of the doctors, who are fighting Covid-19 risking their lives, are opposing it,” Choi said.
He added that the government, as well as the opposition party, has been "suppressing healthcare professionals and medical institutions" since late January.
Choi said the KMA has repeatedly been reaffirming its stance about telemedicine. “When it comes to patient care, face-to-face has to be the basic. Telemedicine should be allowed only as exceptional cases where in-person care is impossible,” he said.
He went on to say that telemedicine should not be evaluated based on the convenience of medical use of patients or cost-effectiveness.
“If the government tries to push ahead with the plan by taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis, the KMA’s fight will get extreme,” he warned.
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