Posted : 2010-06-21 18:17
Updated : 2010-06-21 18:17

Plugging hospitals into Web

Officials from the Ministry of Knowledge Economy join representatives from telecommunications operators, electronics companies and medical service providers at a seminar aimed at discussing growth strategies for the nascent tele-health industry at the Central Post Tower in Seoul last month.
/ Korea Times file

Telecom firms see new growth engine in medical services

By Kim Tong-hyung
Staff reporter

With voice exposed as a decaying business model, telecommunications companies are scrambling to secure profits beyond their traditional boundaries.

It remains to be seen whether medical services can prove to be the new gold trail they are desperately seeking.

There appears to be increasing cross-industry collaboration between telecommunications operators, hospitals and other medical providers as they consider more ways to deliver healthcare virtually.

The most aggressive efforts come from KT, the country’s biggest telephone and Internet provider, which is intent on exploiting its vast fixed-line and wireless networks to tap into the potential of the yet-to-beborn tele-health industry.

The emergence of interactive communication technologies, such as video conferencing and Internet protocol television (IPTV), as well as digitized health records and e-health initiatives, has provided favorable conditions for the widespread adoption of telehealth services.

Now, with the country moving to rewrite its laws on medical services and allow doctors more freedom for remote diagnosis based on communications technology, companies like KT are rubbing their hands with glee.

KT has been testing its telehealth applications through a “u (ubiquitous)-health” trial service with the Gangnam Severance Hospital in southern Seoul since March. According to KT officials, the company’s technologies will be adopted in the real diagnosis of patients when the hospital converts to commercial services in August.

The Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital, which is also developing a Webbased tele-health service dubbed “care.D,” also expects to start commercial services during the summer.

Aside of its partnership with the Severance Hospital, KT said it is talking with two other Seoul-based university hospitals for developing tele-health applications.

Diabetes patients to benefit first This new breed of services will help hospitals provide care to remote patients who had previously lacked access or are suffering illnesses that make travel difficult or impossible. The technology could even eventually contribute in addressing the shortage of medical specialists and facilities in rural areas, according to the companies involved.

According to KT and the hospitals, diabetes patients will be among the first to benefit from the tele-health services that would allow home health monitoring and tight glucose control.

“We are currently testing our ‘Style U-Health’ service and identifying the areas for improvement. Providing stability in monitoring diabetes patients would be key,” said a KT official.

Style U-Health will allow a diabetes patient to use KT’s video-enabled voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone, Style, to send blood sugar levels and other information to their doctors at the Severance Hospital to be examined and processed.

The hospital said the patients will be charged about 10,000 won per month for the new service, although it has yet to decide on detailed plans.

Other tele-health methods may involve personal computers or video-conferencing systems enabled by Internet-connected televisions and other such devices.

The St. Mary’s Hospital’s Care.D is also predominately focused on diabetes patients, particularly pregnant women.

The patients will be asked to measure and post their blood sugar levels, blood pressure, weight, food intake and other information to the service’s Web page three to four times a day. This will lead to them receiving directions from nurses and nutrition specialists by telephone, online or text message.

St. Mary’s Hospital is looking to provide a larger variety of services and improve user interface before commercializing Care.D sometime between July and August.

It remains to be seen how much the tele-health industry would be allowed to grow.

Despite all the talks about deregulation, government officials are saying that the allowing of remote diagnosis will be limited to patients with chronic critical conditions or living in areas where accessing medical specialists is difficult.

However, companies like KT could manage to waver on their commitment when a breakthrough in tele-health, or uhealth as it prefers to call it, would provide a critical jolt to its IPTV business.

Major telecommunications companies, including KT, and other operators such as LG U +, formerly LG Telecom, and SK Broadband, have invested heavily in their IPTV businesses, which provide a wealth of interactive features such as video on demand (VOD) aside of conventional television. The three operators currently combine for about 2 million IPTV customers.

Although the companies are betting that IPTV becomes a mainstream pay-television platform here, they are finding it hard to compete with digital cable and satellite in the wealth of entertainment content.

Of course, the distinctive advantage of IPTV as a platform would be its interactivity, and this is where advanced data services like tele-health comes in. While VOD will always be the marketing bait for luring IPTV customers, it would be options like tele-health that would make the Web-based televisions indispensible to households.

“Tele-health and ‘T-commerce,’ which will allow consumers to make electronic purchases directly from the Webenabled televisions, will be the two factors that could trigger an IPTV explosion,” said Kim Wonho, chairman of the Korea Digital Media Industry Association (KODIMA).

KODIMA is an industry lobby that represents the country’s three IPTV operators and also the providers of the digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) mobile and satellite television, and the four terrestrial broadcasters.

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