Program can reform public healthAn acquaintance of mine told me about the tough times he was experiencing recently. One of his parents, who underwent stomach cancer surgery three years ago, needs to go to Seoul every couple of months for checkups and medication prescriptions. He has to make time to accompany his parent to the hospital. But what pains him most is the trouble his fragile and ailing parent goes through to make long-distance trips to Seoul just for a simple checkup and to pick up medication.
Elderly patients are not the only ones who are worn down by exacting numerous hospital visits. Patients with diabetes and high blood pressure must see their doctors regularly. The application of digital and IT technology in health care and medical services can help ease the pain and cost for long-distance patients because they won’t have to make hospital visits for prescriptions and checkups.
Telemedicine programs can narrow the breaches and blind spots. But they can only be successful when the infrastructure and necessary technologies are apt. A network of ICT is essential in order to quickly transmit and receive video streams and large-file medical information. A test of teleconferencing in the early 1990s was disastrous due to frequent disruptions in transmission. Today’s telecommunications infrastructure and digital technology would allow a fast and uninterrupted flow of video, audio and files.
Patients must be examined accurately despite physical distance through virtual reality. Biotechnology has progressed sharply in recent years so that electronic devices like biosensors and biomarkers are capable of replacing human eyes and hands in examining and measuring the exact state and severity of diseases and infections. Digital gadgets and smartphone applications also allow simple checkups on the levels of blood pressure and blood sugar.
Public acceptance and response to telemedicine must be ready. Technology is useless if there is no demand. In theory, the demand for remote health care through ICT technology should increase amid accelerated social aging and a surge in chronic illnesses. More than 90 percent of elderly citizens in remote rural areas were happy with the telemedicine services they received. If demand grows, telemedicine services will prove effective.
Technology is still lagging to fully replace an in-person doctor’s examination with virtual care in credibility and reliability. Telemedicine also cannot cover all treatments and medical services. But incremental application should be considered in order to provide better and constant care for patients in faraway places who suffer from chronic diseases. The medical field should consider the perspective of public needs and try to come up with a design to improve public health welfare. The government should work on a reasonable package that both the public and medical field can accept and welcome. Meanwhile, practitioners and scientists should endeavor to develop and advance telemedicine technologies.
These endeavors could amount to an advanced digital system and infrastructure that would allow residents and patients in underprivileged areas easy accessibility to medical care and help to upgrade overall public health. Our telemedicine technologies and applications could be exported and would contribute to the country’s vision of a creative economy. Compromise and solution on the debate on telemedicine is possible if everyone concentrates on the benefit of public health.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is professor of molecular and developmental biology at Hanyang University.
By Lee Young-sik