K-HealthCare: The New Syndrome of 2020
A story of South Korea’s Healthcare System and Response to CO
Kevin YunJong Na
Edited By: Andrew Shinho Kim
http://english1.president.go.kr/BriefingSpeeches/Speeches/770 (Credit: Chung Wa Dae)
Response from South Korea to the COVID-19 Pandemic
With the advent of coronavirus cases, South Korea has received world-wide acclaim for its successful response to COVID-19. One main way that made this achievement possible was the massive distribution of test kits. The Korean Government proceeded to carry out a strong initial response. Back in 2015, South Korea had learned many lessons from the MERS outbreak, which significantly impacted Korea’s economy. Based on past experience, the most important lesson that Korea had learned was that speed was crucial. Therefore, the slow system of new medical equipment approval was modified to prepare for future outbreaks. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) also established many protocols to speed up the process of analyzing any infectious disease.
By allowing the quick emergency uses of new RT-PCR kits and the development of test kits, South Korea’s government was able to respond quickly to the rise of initial COVID-19 cases. According to the Korean Herald, the largest daily news organization that covers international news and represents Korean media, several Korean medical companies tackled the problem at once, and successfully developed many RT-PCR test kits. Many of them proved to be effective—accurate results were produced in under 6 hours. Between February 7 and March 10, over 350,000 patients were tested with the test kits, allowing for more analysis inside private institutions (Korean Herald). As a result of the successful development, companies like Seegene, Solgent, Sugentech were approved to export their test kits to other countries.
The researchers also utilized artificial intelligence to confront the rapid propagation of COVID-19 cases. For instance, artificial intelligence was used to extensively analyze patients with COVID-19 (from China) to determine other mutated forms of the coronavirus. Even before COVID-19 hit Korea on January 19, many medical companies used the sample cases that occurred in other countries to identify mutations and develop its RT-PCR test kit (Newsweek). Seegene, a biotech company, used artificial intelligence to analyze the fastest delivery method of test kits. By maximizing the use of artificial intelligence, the Korean government could carry out a strong response against COVID-19.
The history of the South Korean Healthcare System
In South Korea, there is universal healthcare, which is funded by government subsidies. This allows 100% of the population to be covered by the core set of services (OECD). South Korea transformed from limited healthcare infrastructures and fragmented financing to a health care system that has one of the highest life expectancies and the lowest levels of health expenditures (OECD).
After 1953, when the Korean war (1950-1953) ended, South Korea’s healthcare system received help from the Minnesota project (1955-1961), through which University of Minnesota and Seoul National University worked together to educate a new generation of health professionals. The Minnesota project influenced and helped introduce Korean medical provisions to medical knowledge and methodology, and it largely shaped the modern healthcare system (University of Minnesota). In 1963, South Korea implemented the Medical Insurance Act, which stipulated that corporations provide health insurance to its employees. Many revisions and additional changes were made following this act. Later on, Park Chung Hee introduced the Medical Aid Program that allows low-income families to receive medical services (Health Affairs). Subsequently, the insurance extended to government workers and self-employed individuals, and the national insurance would continually extend to cover the entire country by 1989 (American Journal of Public Health). Through a slow and gradual process, South Korea achieved universal health care for all its citizens. The National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) was founded in 2000 to become the single national health insurer (Oxford Academic).
The Golden Standard of Healthcare Response to a global pandemic
Every country has a different approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. If we take a closer look into South Korea’s approach to COVID-19, we can find many interesting aspects. South Korea showcased its top tier healthcare system to the world when it led an exemplary response to the pandemic. To a certain extent, South Korea’s healthcare system improved significantly due to its past history with pandemics.
In May 2015, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses posed a massive threat to South Korea. According to Dr. Kim Woo Joo from Korea University Guro Hospital, "[i]t lasted only two months, but there was a big panic in South Korea” (Korean Herald). In fact, MERS, a highly infectious disease, caused the death of 36 patients and infected 186 people; shockingly, according to the KCDC, 83% of transmission events occurred due to five superspreaders (KCDC). The most important lesson from this outbreak was the importance of diagnostic tests. This outbreak also convinced the South Korean authorities to prepare and establish basic infection prevention measures within healthcare facilities. From the past MERS pandemic, the South Korean community members developed a stronger common goal that they would prioritize public health over privacy. Moreover, there is a general consensus that public health has greater importance because it connects directly to the well-being of the citizens and the economy.
There were several ways that South Korea responded particularly well to COVID-19. South Korea experienced the first case of COVID-19 earlier than most countries, and it was also one of the few countries to execute and administer massive COVID-19 testings among its citizens. In response to COVID-19, South Korea has implemented a fast government response with test kits and widespread, high-volume testing. Moreover, South Korea’s healthcare system and KCDC effectively established protocols to treat and quarantine infected individuals as well as disinfect contaminated environments (The Diplomat). Furthermore, South Korea was one of the very few countries that did not seal off its borders. There are some countries that imposed strict restrictions on overseas arrivals; however, South Korea has instead adopted special entry procedures for people who come to the country from overseas. Regardless of the point of departure, everyone who enters the country is required to self-quarantine for 14 days, and they are led to facilities that can test for COVID-19 upon arrival. Then, they are required to install a self-diagnosis app and inform the KCDC about their quarantine status.
How should the world respond to COVID-19?
During a health crisis, the government plays a huge role in conveying and disseminating essential information to reduce uncertainties and anxieties. South Korea almost immediately imposed a contact tracing system, which specifically traced and investigated the routes of each positive case. In addition, it rallied an immediate unified response through national organizations to fight the pandemic together. Many organizations including news organizations began providing information to the public through press briefings to communicate a list of places that infected people have visited. The government was transparent in the release of information. Not only did the government disseminate updates to the public through daily press briefings, but there were also frequent real-time message updates to the general public through a messaging system that is hard coded into every phone (Center for Strategic & International Studies). Moreover, there were many practical pieces of advice with detailed preventive measures on viral transmission that were advertised on websites, crowded public spaces, and newspapers to remind people to utilize personal hygiene best practices (The Diplomat). These measures allowed the general public to have a heightened awareness and education on differentiating the effective and ineffective practices.
As of August 4th, these are the statistics from South Korea’s KCDC.
To see more information, please visit the official website for Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC): http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/en/.