Medical innovation hamstrung by rules is helped by virus

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Medical innovation hamstrung by rules is helped by virus


A medical staff professional checks a patient remotely via robots at a makeshift medical center in an effort to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus. [MYONGJI HOSPITAL]

As the coronavirus continues to threaten the country, some Koreans are wishing for something that is now basically illegal: telemedicine.

Telemedicine uses technology, such as robotics, the Internet of Things and 5G networks, to provide medical care remotely. Patients can consult with doctors online and receive prescriptions in the comfort of their own homes.

The futuristic concept is becoming a hot topic as they learn that the virus is highly contagious and that many cases in China are picked up at the hospital.

The JoongAng Ilbo spoke with a 37-year-old mother of a 4-year-old boy, and she said that she would like to have access to the technology sooner rather than later.


Her son is running a fever, but she is unsure if she should head to the doctor’s office. Lee recalls how fast Middle East respiratory syndrome infected people inside hospitals five years ago. While that hasn’t happened in Korea yet, the possibility is causing the ill to pause before they head for treatment.

“I wish I could just consult with a doctor and get a prescription by phone or video call for less severe symptoms, like fever,” she said.

Telemedicine has become the norm in Wuhan, China, as the city was forced to find an alternative to a medical system that requires human-to-human contact.

The Beijing Medical Association switched on an online medical platform on Feb. 1. Patients can use the site to consult with doctors about symptoms related to the coronavirus. The platform was developed and is managed by Baidu, the most popular search engine in China. A total of 11 medical consulting platforms, including JD Health, Alihealth and Ping An Good Doctor, participated in creating the platform.

China’s private IT companies are leading the transformation. They have stitched together a number of technologies, from the 5G to artificial intelligence, to create a new sort of medical delivery spanning the country’s vast territory.

Alipay, a digital payment service in China, started Alihealth, a free medical consulting service, on Jan. 26. About 20,000 certified medical professionals offer consultations on the platform to more than 100,000 patients everyday. So far, it received positive feedback from medical professionals.

“I consult with 600 patients every day on average. I think Alihealth helps minimize the risk of cross-infections,” said Wang Lan, a respiratory specialist in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

A similar transformation is happening in the United States, with stocks of telemedicine companies moving accordingly. Shares of companies offering mobile apps that provide medical counseling have risen rapidly this year.

The stock of Teladoc, which provides virtual consultations, has risen more than 27 percent this year. The share price of Ping An Good Doctor, which is traded in Hong Kong, has also risen around 27 percent. Ping An Good Doctor has more than 300 million users.

In Korea, telemedicine is held back by a tangle of regulations and strong resistance from the medical profession. It has only been tested in small-scale government trials.

The government limits the practicing of telemedicine, or virtual medical counseling, to a few public health clinics and nursing homes. Last July, the government designated Gangwon as a “regulation-free zone for health care” and promised to allow the practice of telemedicine inside the region. But the plan went nowhere, with no medical institutions volunteering to participate.

A revision to the medical law has been pushed since 2010, but it invariably fails to see the light of day, dying at the National Assembly.

Lee Seung-kyu, vice president of the Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization, stressed at a press conference the importance of telemedicine to minimize infection risks. The Ministry of Health and Welfare, however, responded by saying there are no discussions on the matter.

While the local medical industry is holding strong against change, some state-designated hospitals, like Myongji Hospital, are using telemedicine systems to protect employees.

Located in Goyang, Gyeonggi, the hospital is the institution where Patient No. 3 was treated. It deployed robots for patient intake.

But Myongji Hospital is not actually practicing telemedicine. The robots are a communication tool connecting doctors on-site with patients in the same building.

“Even if we have the infrastructure and technology necessary to practice virtual medical care, we cannot,” said Prof. Oh Sang-woo from Dongguk University Ilsan Hospital.

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