[OUTLOOK]Medical services opening is hailedThe unavoidable waves of globalization are now surging rapidly in our medical area. With the Doha Development Agenda having been launched on Nov. 4 by the 4th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization, we have begun in earnest a debate over the opening of the medical services field.
The government is expecting demands to be made in some sort of form to open medical services to at least the United States and China. Two of the most important issues to be discussed will most likely be allowing foreign medical institutions seeking business into the market and permitting foreign medical professionals to enter the country to practice. Several major foreign medical institutions have already shown an avid interest in entering Korea.
There are rumors that certain famous foreign hospitals have already decided on whom in Korea they will be associated with, and that the discreet scouting for qualified professionals has more and more come into the open.
As in most cases of market openings, the problem is the reaction from the government. There are two major mistakes that the government has committed in the negotiations for the opening of medical services. The first mistake is that the government started negotiations too late, because it did not pay enough attention to it. The second mistake is the government's desire to defend the market in a manner resembling that of a "Don Quixote" ?on the pretext of protecting the "public good" needed in medical services.
The opening of professional services for foreign doctors was one of the built-in agendas that had been expected from the very start of the WTO system in 1995. The government should have had plenty of time to examine the matter and come up with a feasible plan to meet the impending changes.
Considering the nature of the services that cater directly to the public and national welfare, the opening of medical services is an issue that should have been met with thorough and imminent attention. Alas, the government started preparing for the negotiations of the opening of the medical services market only after the WTO set the Doha Development Agenda. The preparations of a mere few months consist of all the readiness that our government has to offer.
The folly of the government's unconditional insistence on defending the market for the "public good" must also be pointed out here. The medical profession no doubt has elements of public good as a profession that attends to the health of human beings. However, the reality is that there are certain business aspects that have become so prominent that they cannot be ignored in the name of "public good." The government, however, is still trying to enforce its authority on the areas where the appeal for "public good" can no longer be used. This would, in fact, compromise the public good in other areas where it should be protected by the government. Despite its insistence on "public good," the government has not done much in reinforcing its public health services to improve the medical conditions in many remote areas and for the homeless.
At the request of the government, the Korean Medical Association has collected the opinions of its members about some of the major issues expected to come up. According to three surveys conducted on its membership and on 26 academic societies, including those for obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine and orthopedics, the association found that 9 out of 10 respondents enthusiastically supported the emigration of medical professionals. A considerable number showed positive interest in other issues, including the introduction of foreign profit-making medical corporations.
There is no telling how the future negotiations will work out. At the worst, we could end up having our people's lives and health being sold and bought for money in medical services where unqualified professionals are employed by foreign capital blinded by profits. On the other hand, a successful negotiation could lead to the salvation of a near-bankrupt national health insurance system and provide a wake-up call for overall poor hospital administration. The introduction of fair competition into the medical services field would also mean that the public would be provided with better quality service.
The opening of medical services will of course have its negative effects. The government must actively seek solutions for the areas that could be left out due to the opening of the market. The government should not try to justify its delayed inaction in the name of "public health." Arbitrary interpretation of the term "public health" could bring the nation incomparably grave consequences.
The writer is a professor of medicine at Korea University.
by Lee In-sung