Telemedicine has faced an uphill battle in South Korea and in fact, under the nation’s Medical Services Act, it is currently prohibited, a result of opposition from the medical community and other stakeholders. However, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Korean government temporarily allowed for prescriptions and counseling by phone, which gave investigators the opportunity to examine patient preferences toward the service.
It has been demonstrated that for consultations on chronic diseases—diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease—telemedicine is effectively equal to in-person visits, and moreover is convenient. Previous studies have looked at patient attitudes toward telemedicine but not many have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop.
A new study, published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, helps to address this knowledge gap. The researchers focused on patients with the chronic diseases of diabetes and hypertension in South Korea and asked them about their preferences for telemedicine versus in-person care, including under different levels of recommended social distancing.
The co-authors of the study are Karen Eggleston, director of the Asia Health Policy Program at Shorenstein APARC; Annie Chang, ’21, MS ’22, currently an MD candidate at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who started the project as a Stanford student; Richard Liang, MD/PhD candidate at Stanford, and Daejung Kim of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
The data was collected from a larger study on the impacts of the pandemic on the management of chronic disease in a number of Asian countries.
Chang notes that her research with Eggleston began after taking her course Health and Healthcare Systems in East Asia: “As a Korean American, I was naturally interested in learning more about South Korea and its healthcare system. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Eggleston during the COVID-19 pandemic, when telemedicine usage surged globally.”
The study findings indicate that respondents did not have a strong preference for telemedicine services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could be attributed to the prohibition of such services outside of the pandemic, to unfamiliarity with the technology, or to other factors.
However, the results show that attitudes toward telemedicine differed among demographic segments: younger patients, who tend to be more familiar with new technologies, had a higher preference for telemedicine, as did males (who are more likely to be employed, restricting their time for in-person visits), and those whose access to healthcare was more restricted.
This research carries significant policy implications concerning the advancement of telemedicine in South Korea and elsewhere. To make better use of telemedicine, policymakers should raise awareness of and familiarity with the services, especially among older populations who are less comfortable with new technologies. There is also a need to develop basic guidelines for telemedicine practices like reimbursement and data security to encourage the adoption of telemedicine as a viable alternative to in-person consultations.