The country's heavy emphasis on growing its Healthcare IT (HIT) sector has driven the government towards the concept of Ubiquitous Health (U-health). Companies such as General Electric (GE), Hewlett Packard and InterComponentWare are amongst the few; interested in expanding its presence in South Korea within this area. In 2009, GE had announced that they planned to invest USD 6million over the next 5 year period in an U-health R&D centre in South Korea's Incheon Free Economic Zone.
U-health represents a concept whereby patient's body vital statistics can be monitored continuously from an environment away from the hospitals. Diagnostics for blood sugar content, blood pressure, body weight, electrocardiogram, cholesterol level, eating habit, physical exercise habit, can be monitored and recorded based on everyday common routine.
Amritpall Singh, Research Analyst from Frost & Sullivan believes that by pursuing the U-health model, the South Korean hospitals will be able to minimize its long triage period and re-align the hospitals role to focus on treating chronic diseases. 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. U-health 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.
In an effort to maximize on the benefits of U-health, it is extremely crucial that the South Korean government actively pursue a healthcare system that is deeply anchored in HIT. Frost & Sullivan research revealed that the software applications within the HIT segment in South Korea is currently earning USD 92.8million revenue in 2009 and is expected to expand its market size by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.8 percent to USD 147.3million by 2016.
"HIT is the foundation in which South Korea needs to establish before pursuing an ambition like U-health. Information collected from patients needs to be secured and delivered real-time to physicians to be of use to the medical professions" explains Singh.
South Korea is an aggressive market and is relentlessly promoting medical tourism across borders. With an estimated 70,000 medical tourist expected to visit the country in 2010, the government is encouraging higher spending on HIT systems in hospitals to increase its efficiency and stay competitive in the market to cope with the increase in patient pool. Singh further commented that South Korea is one of the fastest aging populations in Asia Pacific and issues such as shortage of hospital beds cannot be avoided unless the government healthcare focus adopts a preventive medicine approach which exemplifies U-health core value.
"HIT is the enabler for countries like South Korea to do more with their current healthcare infrastructure without incurring higher CAPEX on building bigger hospitals or increasing number of beds" shares Singh.
One of the biggest components of HIT and the foundation in which U-health will need to be built upon is the Electronic Medical Records (EMR) system. In a step towards encouraging the pick-up of EMR systems, the South Korean government provides subsidies and creates various policies to encourage hospitals to adopt the technology.
In September 2009, the government announced that it will spend USD 151.50 billion between 2009 and 2013 to strengthen its competitiveness in the IT sector. Singh believes that a majority of this amount would be allocated for developing industrial infrastructure that is likely to benefit many industries, including healthcare. Other initiative includes the National Health Information Infrastructure (NHII) which aims to implement Electronic Health Record (EHR) across selected public hospitals, inclusive of academic medical centers from 2007 to 2010.
Singh explains that although South Korea is technologically advanced, the HIT sector faces a shortage of IT professionals and will eventually slow the expansion rate of the market. University going students are opting for courses that are more lucrative like business and management, hence limiting the number of IT courses and graduates in the future. To address this gap, the government has taken active measures to recruit foreign IT talents as well as offering specialized IT related courses through its Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) center.
The other challenge that the South Korean government must acknowledge and act upon is to manage the integration of HIT systems across various existing hospitals platforms. Singh notes that hospitals might find it extremely difficult in managing the integration while maintaining the relevance of various technology and applications to the physician's role in hospitals. Singh believes that HIT is meant to compliment the physicians work and enhance the working efficiency as opposed to working against the physician's natural workflow.
"At the rate of HIT expansion in South Korea, it's no surprise that the South Korea will eventually have a fully integrated healthcare delivery model by 2015" comments Singh.
The HIT trend in South Korea is slowly shifting towards a patient self-managed health framework. Current major focus will be on adopting departmental systems and EHR. Other areas that will be of interest are radio frequency identification (RFID), business intelligence (BI) and green IT.
"U-Health is currently in its infancy stages of development, but given the right building platform and technology, it will be only a matter of 4 -5 years before it is widely utilize" closes Singh.
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