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South Korea positions for digital healthcare push

Strong private sector investments and government initiatives are driving the country toward its goal of achieving an integrated national electronic healthcare system by 2015, notes an analyst.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

Driven by large investments in healthcare IT, South Korea is on track to bring the concept of ubiquitous health, or U-health, to reality, according to Frost & Sullivan.

The company's research analyst, Amritpall Singh, said in a report released Tuesday that under the nation's projected U-health system, a patient's body vital statistics can be monitored continuously from an environment away from the hospitals. Diagnostics for blood sugar content, blood pressure and body weight can be monitored and recorded based on everyday common routine, he added.

The U-health system also enables physician to perform "real-time monitoring" on patients' vital signs and lifestyle patterns to identify the possible forming of diseases and focus entirely on disease prevention, Singh added.

This adoption of a U-health system will allow South Korean hospitals to minimize their long triage processing times and realign their roles to focus on treating chronic diseases, the analyst pointed out.

"With the amount of information collected from the patient's daily routine, it is far easier for the physician to react with a treatment plan," he said.

Besides better diagnoses and treatment, investing in healthcare IT--which is the foundation upon which U-health is built on--becomes an "enabler" for countries such as South Korea to expand their current infrastructure, Singh pointed out. Such investments mean that the government will not need to build bigger hospitals or increase the number of beds to cope with the challenges of managing an aging population, he added.

To turn its U-health concept into reality, the South Korean government has been encouraging more hospitals through subsidies and policies to adopt the electronic medical records (EMR) system, which is an integral pillar of the system, the analyst said. Additionally, in 2009, it pledged US$151.5 billion to strengthen its competitiveness in the IT sector, according to the report.

Private-sector interests have also been encouraging, Singh noted. Last year, General Electric announced a US$6 million plan, spanning over five years, to build a U-health research and development (R&D) center in South Korea's Incheon free economic zone, he pointed out.

Challenges ahead
While the healthcare infrastructure is receiving financial support, Singh said achieving an integrated healthcare system in South Korea is not without its challenges.

Given the advanced nature of the technology involved in healthcare IT, the country faces a shortage of IT professionals, the analyst noted. This is because more university students are enrolling into more lucrative courses such as business and management, and this trend may eventually slow down the expansion of the local healthcare sector.

To address this, the government has resorted to recruiting foreign IT talents as well as offering specialized IT-related courses through its Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) center, he said.

Another roadblock hospitals are facing is the need for integration across existing hospital systems, and he urged the government to step in. He explained that hospitals may find it "extremely difficult" to manage the integration while maintaining the relevance of various technologies and applications that will be used by healthcare professionals.

To date, South Korea's U-health system remains in its infancy stage. However, Singh expressed confidence that with the right technologies and platform for development, the nation will have a fully-integrated healthcare delivery model by 2015.

In a separate report released in October, Frost & Sullivan projected that 90 percent of a country's healthcare budget is spent on only 30 percent of its population. Pointing to technology as a driver of healthcare advancements, the research firm predicted that revenue for the global telehealth services market would increase to US$9 billion by end-2010.

Apart from South Korea, other Asian economies such as China, India and Singapore are also looking to drive their respective IT healthcare market.

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