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[FOCUS] Coronavirus epidemic provides chance to test telemedicine in connected society

By Lim Chang-won Posted : March 13, 2020, 12:23 Updated : March 13, 2020, 13:15

[Gettyimages Bank]

SEOUL -- Telehealth is still in the experimental stage, but a new coronavirus epidemic has created a rare opportunity for doctors to test it in a country well-known for an advanced medical system and an ultra-fast mobile telecom network that opened a connected society.

In Mungyeong, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southeast of Seoul, a training institute run by Seoul National University (SNU) Hospital, one of South Korea's oldest and biggest hospitals, was turned into a temporary hospital to treat some 100 COVID-19 patients who are not in serious condition.

Data collected through video calls and X-ray examination images are stored and uploaded through a computer network for quick reference and real-time reading by doctors and nurses who stay at a monitoring center set up at SNU Hospital in Seoul and remotely direct medical inspections, diagnoses and prescriptions.

In the institution, manned by dozens of people, minimal manpower was given to reduce contact even during treatment. Patients housed in isolated rooms complete with toilets, beds and TVs stay on the upper floors while medical personnel wait on the first floor. Their entrances are far away and medical personnel wear protective clothing only when they face patients.

Using video calls, nurses check the conditions of patients twice a day and doctors examine them once every other day. If severe cases occur, patients should be transferred to big designated hospitals for intensive treatment. The oxygen saturation level or body temperature is measured by patients for themselves.

[Gettyimages Bank]

Telemedicine is used in a more limited sense to describe remote clinical services, such as diagnosis and monitoring.

Telehealth is a service via electronic information and telecom technologies that allow long-distance contact, care, advice and monitoring. Clinicians discuss a case over video conference, a robotic surgery through remote access, physical therapy via digital monitoring instruments and home monitoring through the continuous sending of patient health data.

South Korea has no basis for telemedicine, which is prohibited by medical law in principle. Telemedicine has been tested just experimentally due to opposition from the medical community. However, SNU Hospital, a state medical institution, has earned a crucial chance to test home medicine with the rapid spread of COVID-19 that left some 8,000 people infected and 68 others dead as of March 13.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare has eased strict rules to temporarily authorize telephone counseling and "untact' drug prescription by medical institutions from February 24, sparking social discussions on telemedicine. The Korea Medical Association is generally negative, insisting home medicine would be effective when hospitals have an advanced system and new technologies.

[Courtesy of Seoul National University Hospital]

SNU Hospital has moved closer to a smart digital operating system limitingly for surgery, urology and uterology by renovating facilities to set up ten "smart" operating rooms where laparoscopic systems, image transmission and the control of medical devices and the environment for operations can be coordinated and integrated into a network for easy control.

In 2018, the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI), a state-funded research institute, partnered with Dankook University in Seoul to jointly research a big data-based AI engine that would analyze and study medical records to predict and manage the conditions of patients.

In September 2019, Samsung Medical Center, a tertiary hospital headquartered in Seoul, joined hands with KT, a telecom company, on the establishment of an innovative 5G smart hospital that would allow medical teams to check information on proton treatment in real-time. Functions would be developed to read digital pathology data and enable surgical education and collaborative care, all in real-time.

When 5G is applied with secured security, the large-scale image information of patients will be safely verified and checked anywhere in hospitals, enabling doctors to avoid the hassle of identifying pathological tissue samples only in a restricted location.

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