[Viewpoint] The health of a nation

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[Viewpoint] The health of a nation

I work and live in Songdo with my family. I moved here three years ago because I wanted to live in an “International” City that was a “Free” Economic Zone. At that time I had great hopes for an international lifestyle that was free from the myriad of laws that control Korean life in such great detail.

The “international” school (by no means “free”) has finally opened and my eldest son is just about to start his second year there. The beautiful Central Park continues to be littered with the remnants of the Bible Expo that was blown to pieces nearly a year ago but continues to make the park virtually unusable.

Other quality-of-life facilities like the golf course, the convention center and “international” hotels are in place - but what about the long-planned “international” hospital?

My experience with Korean medical facilities is somewhat mixed. Visits to the local clinic for kids’ colds and minor issues are fine. The language is not a problem for such minor things and the service is good, quick and inexpensive. For more serious and complex issues, I have to go to Seoul, to one of the “Big Five” hospitals. Although they all claim to have “international” departments, only one is really at that level. In the others, the “international” part disappears past the front desk and I suffered the embarrassment of being asked to undress in front of other patients waiting their turn and having to explain my intimate details in easy earshot of the waiting room.

I read that the National Assembly will soon debate a change in the law to allow foreign hospitals to establish themselves in Korea, albeit restricted to the “Free” Economic Zones. The main issue seems to be profitability. I can’t see how the great institutions in the rest of the world at the cutting edge of medical science would want to choose Korea for their development without the incentive offered by almost all of the other developed nations in Asia.

I can understand the Korean doctors who are against the idea of allowing foreigners into the market, but this seems to be based on self-interest rather than the health of the nation and its visitors. I would also like to see a reduction in over-prescription of specific medicines from nearby pharmacies and various unnecessary tests that currently blight the current Korean system.

There is, I understand, a number of minority groups that strongly feel that the whole Korean health system will suffer from the introduction of overseas expertise. How can this be? Adding top-level services cannot affect the good things already in the Korean system but surely can only help raise the level of treatment, research and education for the general good. In all the fully developed countries, for profit and national health services have successfully run in parallel for years.

From my own personal perspective, I can see two great benefits in a relaxation of the restrictive practice and protectionist laws currently in place. First, I could, along with my fellow non-Korean residents, have access to the best medical treatment available in the world. Who doesn’t want that for their kids and aging parents?

Second, in order to attract foreign investment there has to be real international standard facilities. If international hospitals were allowed to be set up, it would greatly influence those who are choosing where to locate their corporate headquarters and businesses.

The influence of such medical institutions would bring many more investors, medical professionals and health-based tourists to Korea. In addition, there would be the spin-offs supporting biotechnical research and other highly specialized health-related industries.

Korea is known to produce one of the largest groups of overseas students in the U.S. and Europe. It must surely be better for Korea’s sons and daughters to be able to develop their expertise on home soil. I doubt that the medical industry in Korea will be able to develop much further through overseas education.

I am beginning to wonder how the concepts “international” and “free” actually translate into the Korean language. I hope they don’t turn out to mean self-interest of minority groups and rampant protectionism in a world in which the globalization is the key to a better standard of living for all.

*The writer is the former head of sustainability for Gale International in New Songdo International City.

By David Moore
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