Digital health in South Korea: five examples of digital health beyond telemedicine

Why South Korea?

Telco strategies in healthcare are increasingly tied to 5G. The promised performance increases around bandwidth and latency, coupled with increases in reliability and security, are set to revolutionise the healthcare industry and will help enable other technologies, such as AI and IoT, to enter the digital health space. You can read more on the impact of 5G on digital health here.

In South Korea, 5G coverage is already relatively widespread, with approximately 80% population coverage, and demand for 5G services from consumers is higher than in most other countries. South Korea is therefore, on the face of it, a strong market for the telco to push into the digital health space.

In the past year, the country’s two leading telecoms operators, SKT and KT Corp, have formed partnerships to offer advanced digital healthcare solutions that aim to improve the experience of patients and healthcare providers. In this article, we outline some of the initial strides SKT and KT Corp have made in digital health, and the different roles the telcos have adopted. 

Why healthcare?

When he assumed office in 2017, President Moon Jae-In identified digital health as a key growth area for South Korea, promising increased investments, as well as an evaluation of existing restrictive regulations, to enable more innovation in the space. In the past few years, the country’s leading telecoms operators have announced plans to play in digital healthcare, forming partnerships with enterprises, universities and hospitals.

Several non-Korean telcos are developing solutions in telemedicine as part of their healthcare offerings. For example, TELUS Health have partnered with Babylon, an app for patient triage and virtual consultations with clinicians, to enable patients in Canada to consult with a doctor for non-emergency conditions. HKT have also recently followed this trend, releasing a similar app for doctor consultations in Hong Kong called DrGo.

Despite a temporary relaxation in policy due to Covid-19, South Korean law traditionally prohibits telemedicine. Therefore, as we lay out below, neither SKT nor KT Corp have yet followed suit of the telcos above and launched initial forays into virtual consultations in South Korea. However, before Covid-19, this law had not been reviewed or discussed for several years, and there were already domestic companies investing in solutions abroad. With the Moon administration’s interest in innovation around digital health, the success of other digital healthcare solutions domestically, and the current easing of traditional restrictions, the Korean telemedicine space is one to watch.

5 examples of digital health

SKT, Ariacare Korea and Happy Connect

In April 2020, SKT announced a partnership with Ariacare Korea (a provider of home and nursing care services for elderly people who have difficulty living alone due to health issues) and Happy Connect (a social enterprise looking to support those who are socially disadvantaged). The partners aim to provide SKT’s AI Care to some of Ariacare Korea’s customers, helping them to use devices such as NUGU – SKT’s AI speaker.

In April last year, a handful of senior citizens in Seoul were also provided with NUGU as part of a senior welfare programme, funded by SKT and the Seongdong Ward office. The programme aimed to combat the growing loneliness felt by this subsection of the country’s ageing population, and enable users to carry out simple tasks independently, such as controlling lights and thermostats which can be connected to the device.

As part of each partnership, SKT monitors the data generated by the NUGU devices in order to enhance its personalised services and recognise abnormalities. For example, should a user say “Aria, Help!”, the speaker will instantly report this.

SKT and Yonsei University

SKT also plans to feature the NUGU device in patient rooms at their 5G-powered hospital, which is being developed in partnership with Yonsei University Health System. This will allow patients to control features such as lighting and bed position with their voice, and to call for assistance. The partners signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2019, and plan to use 5G connectivity to enable features such as 3D mapping technologies and facial recognition systems to monitor patients and visitors.

SKT and Macrogen

Beyond this, SKT is working in partnership with a precision medical biotechnology company, Macrogen, to build a system that can process, manage and analyse vast amounts of data securely. SKT will provide connectivity, as well as compression storage technology, allowing hospitals and research institutions to store data efficiently and cost-effectively: the technology could help save operations costs by up to 90%, and by enabling use of machine-learning capabilities, could shorten data analysis time to a tenth.

This case study is especially relevant to the Korean government’s digital healthcare agenda as, in 2018, they announced plans to build a bio database for medical big data by collecting the data of 10 million patients to offer personalised diagnostics and treatment plans. Though South Korea has strict data regulations, the government is working towards a deregulation of the local data market, which could support further opportunities and capabilities for the SKT-Macrogen partnership.

SKT Invites Healthcare

On March 14th, SKT announced the launch of its own digital healthcare arm, Invites Healthcare, in partnership with Newlake Alliance Management, a private equity firm. Korean Healthcare company SCL Healthcare is also set to join the partnership. This signals a move by SKT to further drive innovation in its healthcare business and develop a more extensive range of partners within healthcare to expand its solutions.

So far, Invites Healthcare has revealed plans to develop an ICT-based chronic disease management service to help those suffering with chronic illnesses to monitor their conditions. As part of this, Invites Healthcare will take over SKT’s Coach-coach Diabetes application. It also intends to launch Smart MRO, a maintenance, repair and operation business to improve operational efficiency and control of medical supplies in hospitals. The company is seeking partnerships and opportunities in foreign markets as well as in South Korea.

KT Corp and Samsung Medical Centre

In addition to SKT and Yonsei University’s plans for a 5G-powered hospital, KT Corp announced a partnership for a 5G-powered (RAN-based) medical centre in September 2019, with the Samsung Medical Centre (SMC) complex in Seoul. They intend to use AR and VR for real-time education, as well as digital pathological analysis. This will make use of the high bandwidth and low latency offered by 5G to enable a high-quality AR and VR experience and allow high volumes of sensitive data to be transmitted quickly and reliably between parties for analysis.

SMC is one of the ‘big five’ hospitals in South Korea, which serve around 5% of the country’s outpatients. South Korea has a National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) where citizens contribute to mandatory health insurance which covers 97% of the total population (approx. 50 million people). Though non-profit, Korean hospitals compete to attract patients, with a high concentration of hospitals located in the capital, Seoul. SMC’s 5G hospital project is not complete, but it could give them a competitive edge once deployed, with potential to attract a higher number of patients and extend this system to other SMC branches.

Projects to watch

The initiatives mentioned are still ongoing and make big promises around what telcos can offer the healthcare industry, for example, through 5G connectivity and connected devices. It will be interesting to monitor the impact that these projects have on South Korean healthcare, and how solutions may develop, especially with the current temporary permission of telemedicine during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Author: Reah Jamnadass, Consultant

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