Telemedicine booms as patients prioritize time and money
While Covid-19 has negatively impacted so many self-employed and mom-and-pop stores, one industry benefitting from the pandemic is telemedicine.
Since the Ministry of Health and Welfare temporarily authorized telemedicine in Korea in February 2020, the industry is booming and being praised by customers mainly for its convenience.
Telemedicine is defined as a medical practice done without face-to-face contact, using telecommunications technology. In other words, patients don’t have to visit hospitals to get diagnosed and receive medical consulting. They can also have their prescriptions delivered to their doorsteps.
Some 3.52 million patients have experienced telemedicine as of January 2022, according to data published by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. That’s up 1,500 percent in just two years since 25,000 in February 2020, the month telemedicine was allowed by law.
Though the lifting of the rules is temporary, telemedicine start-ups are flourishing. There are around 20 start-ups that offer telemedicine services in Korea.
Doctor Now, an online telemedicine service platform, attracted a total of 900,000 users in just one year after its launch. The company received 10 billion won ($8.3 million) in funding from major investors, including SoftBank Ventures Asia, a venture capital subsidiary of Tokyo’s SoftBank Group.
It works in partnership with over 400 hospitals and pharmacies across the country and offers users services in a total of 13 areas including internal medicine, neurology, otolaryngology, dermatology, dental services, obstetrics & gynecology and pediatrics and adolescents.
Patients send diagnostic requests to doctors who then diagnose them either by phone or video calls, or suggest face-to-face consultations if necessary.
The app then connects users to pharmacies nearby so that they can get their medicines delivered quickly. Doctor Now signed a partnership with delivery service providers Vroong and Barogo.
Starting Feb. 17, Doctor Now is offering services for Covid-19 patients who are under home treatment. The app said it offers all services related to Covid patients, from diagnosis to delivery of medicine, for free.
“Doctor Now is fully offering all our services in order for the patients to get diagnosed and recover as soon as possible,” Doctor Now CEO Jang Ji-ho, said. “We will endeavor to contribute to supporting the government’s presentative measures and stabilizing its at-home treatment system.”
Ollacare is also offering a similar service. Established in July 2021, the app has over 190,000 monthly active users as of the end of December, up 400 percent on month.
Big tech companies like Naver and Kakao are also jumping into the contact-free medical service field, though they are still in the beginning stages.
Naver is set to take its first step by establishing a 661-square-meter (7,115-square-foot) in-house hospital in its new building in Seongnam, Gyeonggi.
The hospital will employ medical professionals in various sectors like otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) and family medicine and offer services for 4,300 Naver employees. The internet company plans to apply its artificial intelligence (AI) service Clova in order to document doctor's diagnosis in a written format using its voice recognition system.
Kakao established its own in-house division, Kakao Healthcare CIC, and appointed Hwang Hee, a pediatrics professor at the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital as its head. Kakao Healthcare aims to target the global healthcare market by launching a lifetime healthcare management service and smart medical treatment through AI, the company said.
The global telemedicine market, which was valued at $61.2 billion in 2019, is expected to grow at an annual rate of 25.2 percent to reach $560 billion in 2027, according to market research firm Fortune Business Insights.
Among 38 OECD member countries, 32 countries have adopted telemedicine. Among 15 countries with the highest gross domestic products, Korea is the only country that bans telemedicine by law.
Thumbs up from public
Patients are highly satisfied with such services, pinpointing convenience as the biggest advantage.
“My life literally got three times more convenient since my daughter taught me about an app that allowed me to get diagnosed over the phone and get my prescribed medicine delivered,” said Yoon Young-suk, a 59-year-old resident of Pochon, Gyeonggi. “I had skin cancer, so I have to visit hospitals every week for regular check-ups.”
“My daughter downloaded an app on my phone, and since then I no longer have to visit the hospitals as much as I used to previously.”
According to a survey by Korea Startup Forum’s body specializing in telemedicine on 1,000 people, 66.1 percent of respondents felt positive about telemedicine. Some 68.4 percent said they would like to experience a telemedicine service in the future.
Around 82.5 percent of people who said they have positive views on telemedicine picked “saving cost and time” as the biggest advantage. Fifty-one-point-four percent said it helps reduce the risk of being infected by new diseases during a visit to hospitals. Multiple answers were allowed.
Strong resistance from medical professionals
However, telemedicine is not entirely welcomed.
Medical experts like doctors and pharmacists raise concerns and anger over the new policy, arguing that is too early to adopt the system when the country lacks clear guidelines.
“There are many different reasons why allowing telemedicine is a risky decision in Korea. One of the biggest ones is who would be responsible for the possible accidents that occur due to misdiagnosis,” said Professor Kim Sung-geun, who specializes in gastrointestinal medicine at the Catholic University of Korea Yeouido St. Mary’s Hospital, who also serves as the vice president of the Seoul Medical Association.
“For instance, if a patient says he has a stomachache, there is nothing doctors can do, not even examine the patient with a stethoscope, but to prescribe medicine for maybe two days and tell him to visit the hospital if the symptoms won’t get better,” Kim said. “But what if the two days put the patient’s life at risk? Who’s responsible for that?”
Privacy is another issue that needs to be tackled.
It is impossible to clearly identify patients via phone calls. Delivery of prescribed machines is also not completely free from personal information leakage problems.
Medical civic groups including the Korean Medical Association (KMA) and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association issued a joint statement recently, demanding the government reconsider the policy considering the serious risks it could bring to people’s health.
“Medical care is the area which needs to put people’s health and lives first, more than anything like cost-effectiveness or economic feasibility. And this cannot be overemphasized,” they said in a statement. “Safety and efficacy of telemedicine have not been verified, but if the government still pushes for it, it means nothing more than they prioritize profitability and efficiency over citizen’s health.”
A report from the KMA showed that around 77.1 percent of doctors have a negative view of telemedicine and the delivery of prescribed medicine. The institute interviewed 6,342 doctors who are members of KMA.
“It’s not that we, the doctors, unconditionally oppose telemedicine. We, too, are very excited about the future of telemedicine in Korea’s medical industry,” Prof. Kim said. “But what we mean is that the country has to go over the policy step by step and come up with some guidelines so that telemedicine can guarantee people’s health, and offer convenience to patients at the same time.”
“It is a fundamental principle that doctors diagnose patients face-to-face,” Kim added. “Telemedicine is just a supplemental tool for the face-to-face diagnosis.”
BY SARAH CHEA [email@example.com]