Otmar Kloiber, the secretary general of the World Medical Association, claimed the South Korean government is exposing its patients to danger should it allow traditional doctors to use modern medical equipment and devices, during his visit to Seoul on Monday.
“We are very much concerned that your government wants to do a business approach to health care by supporting the producers of medical equipment so they can be able to sell it to OMDs (oriental medical doctors),” he told reporters during a press meeting held at the Korea Medical Association building.
“That means quite obviously your government is willing to trade the questionable economic benefits against the safety of Korean patients.”
Kloiber’s visit to Korea took place about two weeks after the Association of Korean Medicine, the largest body of traditional doctors here, announced that they would file a lawsuit against the Health Ministry if the government does not guarantee their right to use nontraditional medical equipment, such as ultrasound, by the end of January.
As the government did not respond to the doctors’ request, the AKM plans to file a suit in the next two weeks.
During the press conference, Kloiber stressed it takes rigorous training in modern, science-based medicine to make the right diagnosis using medical equipment. The AKM has been claiming that 70 percent of the traditional medical school curriculum is equivalent to that taught at nontraditional medical schools nationwide in Korea, and that they are qualified to diagnose patients using modern technologies.
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“You say it’s 70 percent. Maybe the curriculum has the 70 percent,” Kloiber said when one of the reporters asked about his thoughts on the SKM’s stance.
“But if you want to use the tools of the modern medicine, it should be no less than 100 percent. And by the way, it is only 70 percent of the basic medical education. As I told you before, doctors have six years of basic medical education, plus another six years of additional education. And that’s not by accident. It’s not to torture them. That is because it is necessary.”
As a part of its deregulation agenda, the Office of Government Policy Coordination and the Health Ministry together announced in January last year that they were considering a law that lets traditional doctors use nontraditional medical devices without having to worry about being sued by regular physicians.
The ministry had promised to come up with the system by the end of 2015, but it failed to materialize, as there was fierce opposition from the Korean Medical Association, which represents 100,000 mainstream physicians.
“It is extremely worrying that the regulatory authorities in this country do not act against (traditional doctors using medical devices),” Kloiber said. “Again, this gives me an impression that your government is not that much interested in the safety of the patients in this country. Obviously their economic interests are prevailing.”
Following the press conference, the AKM told The Korea Herald that it would send the World Medical Association a letter containing a set of questions.
“What Kloiber said during the conference is nothing new. We’ve heard the same arguments from the nontraditional doctors many times in the past,” said Kim Ji-ho from the AKM.
“In South Korea, we (traditional doctors) are recognized as doctors by the law. The letter will explain how we are acknowledged by the legislation, and how our education curriculum is similar to those taught at nontraditional medical schools. We would like to hear about their thoughts after reading those materials carefully.”
Kloiber, on the other hand, seemed to be firm on his stance. “I can simply say if you (referring to traditional doctors) believe you can do the same in the diagnosis and therapy, just take the modern medicine exam,” he said. “Get the right license.”
According to the latest government data, Koreans’ medical bills related to traditional medical treatment increased from 2010-2014. Overall expenditure on traditional medical treatments, such as acupuncture, was 2.4 trillion won ($2.2 billion) in 2014. The spending has increased significantly since 2010, with an average annual growth rate of 7.7 percent per year according to the state-run Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service.
One of the biggest factors behind this growth is the country’s growing elderly population, many of whom prefer traditional treatments over Western medicine, according to the government. Traditional medicine is especially popular here for conditions including dementia, infertility, spinal stenosis, failed back surgery syndrome and chronic pain.
In order to boost the traditional medicine industry, the Health Ministry last month announced its plans to standardize traditional herbal medicine and invest in clinical research projects to come up with possible collaborations between modern and traditional medical professionals.
There have been a number of cases where the condition of those who suffered spinal cord injuries improved significantly after receiving both modern and Korean traditional treatments at the National Rehabilitation Center, according to the Health Ministry.