Separate health from the ministryChung Chin-youb, the professor at Seoul National University (SNU) Bundang Hospital named as the new minister for health and welfare, is an orthopedic surgeon and expert in treating pediatric cerebral palsy. He served as the head of the SNU hospital unit in Bundang, Gyeonggi, from 2008 to 2012, during which he arranged for the export of the center’s medical software to Saudi Arabia and turned the institution into a patient-oriented hospital. The doctor without experience in bureaucracy would be tested on whether he could restore the ministry’s reputation after its botched early-stage response to the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The outbreak underscored various problems in the country’s medical and health care system. The country lacks sufficient public clinics and has been poor in preventive actions towards infectious diseases with medical centers vulnerable to the spread of infection, especially in emergency rooms. The overall health care and medical service system needs an overhaul to maximize efficiency without adding an extra burden to patients. The medical service sector is a field laden with conflicts of interests from various groups. The government should be able to exercise bureaucratic leadership to mediate differences and conflicts of interest through dialogue and compromise. The health minister therefore needs to be equipped with bureaucratic and political expertise.
What is imperative is to separate the gigantic ministry into two offices specializing in welfare and health care in order to customize and expedite adequate public policies. If it is hard to break up the ministry, the government should at least institutionalize two vice ministers separately in charge of welfare and health care affairs.
The ministry’s multitude of problems won’t be solved just by naming a doctor as a minister. The welfare division also needs to address various issues including pension reform. The government cannot replace a minister every time a major health- or welfare-related incident arises. The president needs to address the fundamental problem of the public health care and welfare systems amid growing needs in the two sectors.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 5, Page 30