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[Editorial] Outmoded regulation

Telemedicine services need to be consolidated beyond the ongoing pandemic crisis

South Korea, one of the world’s most wired nations, has not yet introduced telemedicine services.

Germany, Japan and China allowed doctors to take care of their patients via telephone and internet in 2005, 2015 and 2016, respectively. The US never prohibited such services from the outset.

Besides its prowess in information and communications technology, a wide pool of competent doctors and an effective nationwide medical system put Korea in a good position to implement telemedicine, which has been adopted so far by more than two-thirds of the 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Many doctors and civic groups have opposed the introduction of the services.

The measure may lead to misdiagnoses and personal data theft, doctors say.

Behind their opposition are also fears that telemedicine could hurt smaller clinics, as it would enable patients to get medical treatment more easily from large hospitals.

Civic groups have claimed permitting the services would open the way to for-profit hospitals, undermining the nation’s medical system.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has proved the effectiveness of local quarantine and medical systems, has also highlighted the need to introduce telemedicine services.

Since late February, the government has allowed doctors to offer medical services to patients via telephone on a temporary and limited basis.

Between Feb. 24 and May 10, about 260,000 telemedicine bills were issued by 3,853 hospitals, according to government data.

During the pandemic crisis, telemedicine has played a useful role in protecting medical staff from being exposed to the killer virus, while helping patients receive medical treatment.

Though many smaller clinics as well as large hospitals have offered the services, few cases of misdiagnosis or other problems have been reported.

Buoyed by the remarkable results, government officials seem to be leaning toward permitting telemedicine services on a permanent basis. They judge that the measure is needed to make the country better prepared for a possible second wave of coronavirus infections in the next winter and beyond.

Kim Yeon-myoung, senior presidential secretary for social affairs, said last week that the government would positively consider introducing the telemedicine system, based on an analysis of the effectiveness and safety of the services implemented over the past few months.

A day after his remarks, Vice Finance Minister Kim Yong-beom emphasized the need to “actively review” deregulation to introduce nationwide telemedicine services.

The government is still expected to face an uphill battle in overcoming objections from doctors.

The Korean Medical Association, which represents some 130,000 physicians practicing across the country, has warned of “extreme” resistance against the move to allow telemedicine services.

Lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, who hold the key to amending a related law to legalize the services, appear split on the matter.

Last year, the ruling party drafted a bill that called for providing telemedicine services to people on remote islands, prison inmates, deep-sea fishermen and soldiers deployed to hard-to-reach areas. But it has postponed submitting the bill to the parliament in the face of objections from civic organizations and a majority of practicing physicians.

A senior ruling party lawmaker said last week that the party would push for the revision of the medical law to expand the scope of eligible recipients during the next National Assembly, which begins its four-year term in late May.

But another ranking party legislator said the ruling party had no concrete plans to introduce telemedicine services, and had not discussed the matter with the administration recently.

Now, it should be recognized that expanding untact -- non-face-to-face contact -- services such as telemedicine is unavoidable in the new normal after the coronavirus crisis.

Ruling party lawmakers should move forward to lift regulations that lag behind fundamental changes across society.

Objections from doctors and civic organizations appear even more groundless and obstinate now, as many ordinary people have experienced the convenience and effectiveness of telemedicine services.

Consideration can be given to providing the services to patients with chronic diseases, elderly people and physically challenged persons before deciding whether to further expand the system.

If necessary, President Moon Jae-in needs to come forward to persuade opponents to accept a measured implementation of telemedicine services.

In his Teachers’ Day message last week, he said his administration would enable all schools around the country to offer online learning, noting that an infection crisis could occur again after the ongoing pandemic is brought under control.

He should be as active toward offering more convenient and effective medical services.
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