The future of telehealth regulation in the COVID era: US and Korea

August 10, 2020

In a matter of weeks, the US medical system dramatically transformed. Regulatory hurdles were lifted, making way for telehealth to explode. Suddenly, HIPAA-compliant video conferencing, value-based care, and procedure pay rates became hot topics.

Pre-COVID, these bureaucratic regulations weren’t anywhere near being removed, but the pandemic thrust the industry decades into the future in a matter of weeks.

The US wasn’t alone in this radical shift. Pre-COVID, South Korea’s laws “totally and explicitly” banned telehealth. Once the pandemic hit, The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that physicians could offer remote services. 

Both governments lifted regulations as temporary measures to combat COVID-19. As the virus continues, though, many believe that these changes should be permanent – and practitioners need long-term HIPAA-compliant communication solutions to meet growing telehealth demands.

Removing the hurdles was only the first step

When the virus began, it became evident that our medical systems weren’t able to function as usual. It wasn’t safe to have potential COVID-positive patients near other patients.

But people still needed regular healthcare. To address these concerns, the US made significant changes to bureaucratic red tape to make telemedicine more accessible.  

While these changes seemed revelatory in the US, the shift to telemedicine was even more dramatic in Korea. On February 22, The Ministry of Health and Welfare said, “At the doctor’s discretion, and when the doctor can secure safety, patients can temporarily receive phone consultations and prescriptions without having to visit a medical institution.”

Unlike the US, South Korea didn’t have existing telehealth structures set up: it was completely new territory. Existing Korean medical regulations strictly prohibited remote care pre-COVID.

In both countries, the changes were swift, and they altered the public’s perception of the medical system. Still, not everyone welcomed them. While many people advocate for the continued expansion of telemedicine, others feel like these provisions should remain temporary.

To continue telehealth or not to continue?

The new Korean telemedicine regulations were met with swift opposition from The Korean Medical Association (KMA), an organization representing over 105,000 doctors throughout the country. Their primary complaints related to the lack of existing infrastructure and preparedness.

Additionally, the doctors argued that they couldn’t effectively treat patients or collect samples over the phone. They can only monitor them, which they fear could lead to misdiagnoses and delayed treatment.

The KMA also expressed its concerns about how telehealth could affect smaller clinics. If people have the option to go to any facility, they felt patients were more likely to choose the University or big-name facilities, leaving the smaller practitioners in the dust. 

The organization also found the new Korean telemedicine regulations to be in direct opposition to the Medical Service Act, which categorizes all hospitals as nonprofits that reinvest their earnings into the operation. For-profit branches are expressly forbidden. They feared that telehealth is a business-motivated move rather than a patient-centric one.

The situation in the US is nearly the opposite. US medical care is big business, and many telemedicine opponents argue that telehealth doesn’t provide adequate compensation for services rendered. Practitioners all over the United States are currently battling insurance companies to be paid for telemedicine services.

Insurance companies feel that doctors shouldn’t be paid the same rate for a phone visit as an in-person visit. Doctors contend that they should be.

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