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South Korea – A global health phenomenon?

6 mins read

South Korea’s K-culture (K-pop, K-dramas, K-fashion, K-beauty…) has surged into a global phenomenon over the last two decades, and this ‘Korean Wave’ has now extended to the healthcare realm. “K-medicine” is also on the rise, reputed to be one of the top healthcare systems in the world.

The country is highly technological and hyper connected, with universal insurance coverage and affordable medical costs. It boasts world-class hospitals and short waiting times, making it an ideal destination for patients from all over the world. It is also well-recognized for its role in supporting global public health, exemplified by providing quality assured vaccines and in vitro diagnostics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The healthcare system
According to the 2021 edition of the CEOWORLD magazine Health Care Index, South Korea has the best healthcare system (out of 89 countries assessed). In 2022, South Korea achieved maturity level four (ML4), the highest level in WHO’s classification of regulatory authorities for medical products. Out of the 33 countries assessed by WHO, only South Korea was listed as attaining this level in regulation for both locally produced and imported medicines and vaccines. It is also the first country to have achieved the highest level for both vaccine and medicine regulation.

Since its healthcare reform in 2004 to attain universal health coverage by becoming a single-payer healthcare system, South Korea has managed to strive for excellence in medical provision while keeping the out-of-pocket cost reasonably low for their residents, around 20 per cent of their medical treatment fees. Furthermore, there are plans to expand subsidies to patients seeking access to new drugs and treatments. The Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service (HIRA) will be able to shorten its drug evaluation period, while the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) will be able
to shorten its drug price negotiation period. These measures are intended to help patients access more drugs and treatments quicker and more affordably.

Overcoming challenges
South Korea’s healthcare system was severely tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has proven itself resilient to the pandemic’s impact. In fact, the pandemic sparked the acceptance of digitalized medicine in South Korea, which led to investment opportunities in digital health technology as well as opportunities for business growth among pharmaceutical companies, healthcare professionals (HCPs), and patients alike.

South Korea is leveraging opportunities presented by the digital revolution to implement preventative healthcare management post COVID-19. It forms part of a larger framework towards enhancing Information and Communications Technology (ICT)-based healthcare services for chronic diseases with data from the medical field being integrated into personalized medicine and novel drug development. Such opportunities not only allow for better access and cost savings for hospitals, but they also help to improve the level of care quality and provide services that may not have been
available locally before. Additionally, it enables automatic documentation such as nursing notes using big data and AI technology, aggregate health information highway allowing access to patient records at any given time contributing to improved patient engagement opportunities.

South Korea is likely to continue investing in digital health technology and telemedicine, with a focus on improving access to care in rural and remote areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telemedicine in South Korea, and this trend is likely to continue in the future, with the potential for virtual consultations and remote monitoring to become the norm.

Embracing tech-enabled healthcare
The opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on tech trends are expanding. For example, by catering to the needs of health-aware customers through digital solutions and improved patient monitoring, opportunities can be created to distribute drugs more effectively and improve patient outcomes. Virtual services using big data have the potential to revolutionize medical delivery systems and spur future growth in the pharmaceutical industry.

AI technology is being deployed in healthcare services, to provide patient support and healthcare information. For example, the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital added a chatbot called “SNUBH Health Buddy” on its mobile app. The chatbot uses AI technology to provide personalized healthcare advice and recommendations to patients, based on their medical history and symptoms. Patients can chat with the bot through the app, and the chatbot uses natural language processing to understand and respond to the patient’s questions.

They are also at the forefront of AI-enabled solutions for medical diagnosis and treatment. VUNO, a South Korean artificial intelligence-powered medical solutions provider, has developed a deep learning-based diagnostic system that can analyze medical images and assist doctors in identifying diseases such as lung cancer and brain tumors. The system uses AI algorithms to analyze images and provide recommendations to doctors, which can help improve diagnostic accuracy and reduce the time needed for diagnosis. And such technology is not just assisting HCPs in South Korea, other Asia-Pacific markets are granting marketing approvals, such as Taiwan and Singapore.

Looking to the future
The future of innovation looks bright for South Korea, with increasing domestic innovation prospects and opportunities for international collaboration.

South Korea is a leading innovator in the field of healthcare, with a strong focus on research and development. The country is currently investing heavily in developing new drugs and treatments. One area of focus is precision medicine, which aims to tailor medical treatments to the individual characteristics of each patient. This approach involves using genetic and other biomarker data to identify the most effective treatments for a patient’s specific condition. South Korea has already made significant progress in this area, with the launch of the Korean Precision Medicine Initiative (KPMI) in 2016, a comprehensive database of genetic and clinical data for Koreans, as well as a platform for international collaboration. For example, the University of California in San Francisco is currently developing precision medicine technologies for Parkinson’s disease.

Another area of future growth in South Korea’s healthcare sector is the development of regenerative medicine. This field involves using stem cells and other advanced therapies to repair and regenerate damaged tissue, with the potential to treat a wide range of conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders. South Korea is already a leader in this field, while there are notable collaborations like Korea-U.S. Regenerative Medicine International Collaboration (KORUS), aims to accelerate the translation of regenerative medicine research from the lab to the clinic.

With its heavy investment in innovation into the future, South Korea’s future health outlook is promising: from being a country that depends on imports to becoming an exporter. From AI-enabled solutions to aesthetic injections, it looks like the landscape has started to shift.

There is no denying that South Korea has experienced a boom in its healthcare sector, and is currently well-positioned for continued growth and innovation. On the one hand, South Korea’s current healthcare structure can be used as a benchmark for most countries worldwide, both for developing and developed nations, to ensure universal, affordable, quality medical access. On the other hand, with a focus on precision medicine, regenerative medicine, and digital health technology, these developments have the potential to transform healthcare delivery in South Korea and beyond, improving patient outcomes and creating new opportunities for investment and growth.

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