[Outlook]Time for medicine to shine

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[Outlook]Time for medicine to shine

The Petronas Twin Towers, a symbol of Malaysia’s development, prove Korea’s construction competence as the buildings were built by a Korean company. Korean builders’ skills are some of the world’s best, although they may not be as innovative as Ove Arup and Partners. That global firm leads engineering, design and planning, and has provided technical designs for 80 percent of the world’s skyscrapers, creating high-added value. It has built architectural monuments such as the Sydney Opera House, Centre Pompidou in Paris and many airports.

But Ove Arup did not begin with those skills. If it had begun in Korea, it would have gone under before it accumulated its engineering skills and technologies, thanks to government officials’ corruption and egalitarian-oriented policies. And it wouldn’t have been able to contribute to the country’s economy.

A few ingenious Korean builders have overcome fierce competition and oversupply in the construction industry. They went to the Middle East, demonstrated their diligence and devotion, made false starts and finally developed and mastered the necessary skills and technology to prosper.

They sweated as they worked in deadly heat and developed technology even though educational institutions back then couldn’t offer as much help as they do now. As a result, they created high-added value. Now Korea’s construction industry feeds the nation’s economy.

How is Korea’s medical industry doing? For the past three or four decades, our society has supplied some of the most talented students in the world to medical schools. In fact, Korean medical students rank in the top 1 percent.

Our society wonders whether the 1 percent who are geniuses take responsibility for the rest of society, as Bill Gates says. The answer may be “Not yet.” So what have our doctors done so far? For the past 30 to 40 years, they went abroad to study. They learned from renowned experts and mimicked these skills in Korea, making our country’s medical services meet world-class levels.

At times mimicking led to creativity. Our medical skills in test-tube babies, liver transplants and treatment of stomach cancer are some of the best in the world.

According to the Korea Academy of Medical Studies, as of 2005, Korea’s clinical medicine ranks in the world’s top 15 percent, on par with those in the United States and Europe.

Just as with construction skills, Korea’s medical practices are quite advanced. In terms of medical services and patient satisfaction, the national health insurance program is also one of the world’s best with low costs and high efficiency.

Of course, Korea’s development of new medications or medical equipment are not yet strong enough to be the country’s main source of income. The most intelligent 1 percent of our people have been drawn to medicine for more than 30 years, but we cannot be satisfied. Our clinical skills and medical services are better than most, and essential medical services are provided to people as a basic right, but the medical field must become a lucrative industry, creating added value. That’s the duty of the medical field, which is full of smart people.

A Korean university hospital escaped regulations and moved to New York in 1998. It established an in vitro fertilization center in Los Angeles in 2002 and has seen profits. In 2005, the doctors began working with around 10 lawyers specializing in industry and labor issues. After one and a half year’s work, they took over a Presbyterian hospital, one of the biggest in the city, and they have run it since.

They bought the hospital for just 20 percent of the market price. They also purchased real estate to ensure financial stability in times of low revenue, and tailored medical services to perfectly fit the local population. Three years after the takeover, they saw a surplus.

The doctors and managers put together a management structure that is different from Korea’s, adopted various health insurance schemes, made various capital investments and secured funding from the national and local governments to pay for medical services. As a result, they have accumulated invaluable experience.

A Korean university hospital bought the biggest private hospital in the second-biggest city in the United States.

It found a balance between profits and public service. Through this case, they have shown that they could achieve abroad what they couldn’t achieve in Korea because the country was caught up by ideologies and regulations.

Both the U.S. and global economies are in turmoil, creating favorable conditions for mergers and acquisitions. In order to overcome Korean regulations and limitations, the medical field must go abroad and achieve what it is capable of, based on its advanced skills and technologies, and bring their experience back to Korea.

We should find out what our government can do to help our medical industry become global by, for instance, taking in patients from other countries and fostering the pharmaceutical industry.

*The writer is a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sohn Myung-sei
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