The government is actively pushing to introduce telemedicine in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the outlook is uncertain due to a wide gap in hospitals and clinics in terms of non-face-to-face medical care.
Healthcare experts expressed various opinions on telemedicine's introduction in a debate, “Introduction of Telemedicine for Whom and What,” at the National Assembly on Wednesday.
|Healthcare experts participate in a debate, “Introduction of Telemedicine for Whom and What,” at the National Assembly on Wednesday.
Professor of Kim Chang-yup at Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health said it was more important to maintain the overall healthcare system than introducing telemedicine.
He cited data that showed the spike of Covid-19 infections in Daegu and the surrounding regions pushed up the nation’s deaths in the first quarter by 10.6 percent from a year earlier.
“The most notable problem in healthcare services during an outbreak of an infectious disease is the difficulty in using essential medical service caused by the overload on the healthcare system and its failing function,” Kim said. In other words, more people were dying due to other diseases than Covid-19, he added.
Before introducing telemedicine, the nation’s overall medical system should be kept stable, Kim went on to say. Otherwise, the failing system focusing on Covid-19 patients will result in bad clinical results of other patients, he said. “We should check whether telemedicine could be of any help in this issue,” he said.
Kim claimed that non-face-to-face medical services would not help people get more essential healthcare at all. “I think the necessity of telemedicine is very low when considering measures for the post-Covid-19 era,” he said.
Another expert said introducing telemedicine without institutional and legal safety measures will bring about side effects such as a collapse of the medical delivery system.
Cho Hyun-ho, medical affairs director of the Korean Physicians’ Association, said although the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the need for telemedicine around the world, an OECD report released in January noted telemedicine had no safety and efficacy.
“If telemedicine is introduced without legal and institutional safeguards, medical accidents will surge, and healthcare quality will fall. The medical delivery system will collapse completely,” Cho said.
As community clinics are already suffering from competition against large university hospitals, one-doctor clinics will have no choice but shut down the business, and the damage will be on to patients, he claimed.
However, other experts said gradually introducing telemedicine could help control the rapid rise of the medical costs in the aged era.
Professor Yoon Kun-ho of the Endocrinology and Metabolism Department of Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital said people should not have an illusion that telemedicine, which has not been introduced in earnest, can solve everything instantly.
However, he warned that if people neglect efforts to address the current problems while trying to solve virtual problems, an imminent surge in medical expenses will be a significant burden.
Yoon suggested starting a part of telemedicine that is already proven in efficacy and safety. Then, he said, people can introduce multiple systems to solve the problems in the current healthcare system.
The government emphasized that person-to-person medical care should remain at the center of the healthcare system. At the same time, the government reiterated its stance that telemedicine would enhance public health, improve the public’s medical accessibility, and prevent infections in the era of infectious diseases.
Kim Gook-il, director of the Healthcare Policy Division at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said some viewed the government’s push for telemedicine as a support for particular medical devices or the medical industry. “The government is supporting non-face-to-face healthcare for public policy. I don’t think this should be pushed for a particular industry,” Kim said.
He also said telemedicine should not confuse the medical delivery system and that the government considered ways to relieve the burden of accountability issues in case of medical accidents.
Although the government temporarily allowed doctors to write over-the-phone prescriptions, the medical community needs a consensus on who can benefit from telemedicine for which disease and for how long to institutionalize non-face-to-face medical service, Kim said.
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