The Korean government has recently announced the global healthcare industry as one of the high value-added service industries that will function as one of the nation’s new growth engines in the future. The promotion of u-Health, therefore, is being hastened to attract foreign patients.
The expansion of u-Healthcare will allow remote healthcare services including diagnosis and monitoring.
This will lead to an increased interest in medical service that is oriented to a systematic prevention and improved healthcare in everyday life due to an increase of interest in chronic diseases and overall health. This will also lead to an amelioration of a regional gap in the use of medical services for residents of islands, remote areas, the physically disabled, soldiers on the front line, and inmates of correctional institutions, which will result in a paradigm shift in medical services.
The reason for this governmental attention to u-Health as a new growth engine for the future is that the size of the world market is expected to grow from 1 billion dollars in 2004 to 34 billion dollars in 2015.
Not only that, the number of users of u-Health services in Korea is expected to reach 7.2 million in five years, bringing about a completely different service market from the current medical service system.
For this reason, global medical instrument manufacturers and IT corporations are paying special attention to u-Health as a strategic industry for the next generation and implementing diverse projects, including aggressive R&D investment. At present, the domestic u-Health market in Korea is in its early stages, but quite a few medical institutions, IT corporations, and construction companies are venturing into the u-Healthcare field.
However, there are many problems that need to be handled before any substantial progress can be made. Currently there is a weak profit model and an inadequate development of standards to make a feasible inroad into the global market. The level of technology has not progressed enough yet. Prohibition of remote medical treatment and billing, unclear responsibilities related to medical accidents and lack of professional and poplar awareness on the necessity and convenience of U-health are all major roadblocks.
Though positive in general on the prospect of the u-Health industry, at present, market formation is lagging due to unresolved issues of infrastructure and a low level of public awareness.
u-Health is a system wherein patients and customers do not physically travel to a medical institution but measure or check blood sugar content, blood pressure, body weight, electrocardiogram, cholesterol level, eating habit, physical exercise habit, etc. and transmit bio information to a DB using a PC, mobile phone or sensor to a DB while going about their daily routines, and medical staff analyze the bio information and feedback (remote diagnosis, recipe or healthcare).
When this kind of system is operated in a stable condition, it can reduce the burden of a personal visit for patients with difficulty accessing medical institutions. It can even help solve the problem of rapidly increasing medical cost for severe cases thanks to regular checkups and preventative care.
Although u-Health was selected as a new growth engine, only a small portion of medical institutions and businesses (IT corporations, construction companies, etc.) are expecting new revenue creation. For most of those involved in the medical industry, the new health market is still a source of confusion especially in regard to market formation, making it hard to see how u-Health will merge into the existing treatment system.
Therefore, to make u-Health a success, it is important to aggressively pursue market expansion and establish a delivery system for medical services whilst the medical professionals assume the major burden.
World Market Change: U-Health Emerging as a Strategic Industry for Next Generation
The world medical industry is rapidly changing. As cross-border use of medical service is rapidly increasing, many countries of the world are jumping into a competition to invite foreign patients in earnest. In addition, major countries including the U.S. are undergoing an all-out institutional reform and a large-scale investment for activation of u-Health.
As part of an economic stimulus package of the Obama administration, the U. S. has allocated approximately 8 billion dollars of budget for u-Health. This budget will be used for service expansion and the nurturing of related industries including construction of u-Health infrastructure and technology development.
As a large-scale investment for institutional reform intended for the expansion of u-Health, standard development, safety verification, and construction of infrastructure, EU has been actualizing a ‘Remote Medical Treatment Action Plan’ since November 2008. Especially, due to the efforts of those countries and businesses that intend to reduce medical expenses as a response to the worldwide economic crisis, it seems that u-Health plans will be accelerated in countries with high medical costs.
In fact, global medical instrument manufacturers and IT corporations such as Philips, Qualcom and IBM are paying special attention to u-Health as a strategic business for the next generation and implementing diverse projects including aggressive R&D investment.
Positive Growth Potential and Competitiveness, Handicapped by Weak Foundation for U-Health Activation
Despite changes in the world market, Korean u-Health is at an infantile stage due to the level of related technologies remaining at 70% of that of more advanced countries, revealing a weak foundation for u-Health activation.
Last May, when announcing a detailed promotion plan for high value-added new growth engines, the Korean government stated that Korea possesses high competitiveness and growth potential on the basis of advanced IT technologies even though Korean u-Health is in its formative stages.
As rationale for its contention, the Korean government stated that Korea’s possession rate of open patents in the u-Health field is 41.5% (vis-à-vis. 29.8% for the U.S. and 22.4% for Japan) and that the number of potential u-Health consumers is 7.2 million (Korea Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, 2005).
Nevertheless, the foundation for u-Health activation is still weak. According to the present Medical Service Act, only remote advising between a doctor and medical staff is allowed, banning remote medical treatment between a doctor and a patient. The Pharmaceutical Affairs Act allows only face-to-face visit, effectively banning delivery of prescribed medication.
The level of accuracy and reliability of domestic technology in the fields of sensor and medical instruments, the core foundation of the u-Health service industry, is also low and the foundation for industrial development is weak as exemplified in the lack of core technology and national standards as well as the inadequacy of commercial models. Also, a remote medical service system for overseas patients, including Korean residents in foreign countries, is not in order.
Accordingly, the Korean government has a plan to revise by the end of this year the existing Medical Service Act and the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act which hinder the activation of u-Health services. A plan is under consideration to expand the range of remote medical treatment, allow delivery sale of exceptional medicine, and clarify the responsible party for all medical accidents.
Also underway is a plan to develop U-health sensors, core technology of the system, and service platforms, and based on this develop commercial models in three strategic fields: remote monitoring of a disease, early diagnosis, and treatment.
u-Health Industry and Fusion with BT,·NT & RT Industries
In the future, a situation is expected wherein basic u-Health and care industries will be expanded through IT or BT (Biotechnology), NT (Nanotechnology) & RT (Robot Technology) industries will create a new industry by fusing with IT and the basic u-Health and care industries as the u-Health industry undergoes a process of transformation and evolution.
Myung-ho Lee, Chairman of Korea e-Health Development Council, has predicted the the future of u-Health saying, "Early diagnosis of a disease through reasonable technologies is eminently possible to reduce the number of people suffering from heart attacks, strokes or cancer, and diagnosing cancer before it goes beyond the curable stage through nano chips. All this will soon become a reality."
He also revealed his conviction that a completely new situation will unfold itself saying, "At present, doctors do not exactly know how a disease progresses in a patient’s body, but advanced technologies will make that kind of knowledge possible."