Coronavirus News Asia

Inside Korea’s low-cost, high-tech Covid-19 strategy

SEOUL – It is the greatest health care crisis of modern times, but South Korea’s national health insurance system has so far spent only US$310 million containing the novel coronavirus pandemic.

What makes that figure doubly remarkable is that the country of 51 million, which was the first to suffer a mass outbreak after China, has so far had 12,121 infections, but only 277 deaths.

What factors underpin this healthcare and cost effectiveness?

According to the head of the agency which oversees healthcare spending and the management of healthcare resources nationwide, a combination of sound information management, highly integrated supply and distribution databases, and prior expertize with MERS.

That, and the fact Covid-19 does not demand expensive treatments.

“It’s a relatively cheap disease,” Dr Kim Sun-min, president of the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, or HIRA, told Asia Times in an exclusive interview. “Other diseases require high-end technologies like MRIs and surgeries … Covid-19 does not.”

HIRA President Dr Kim Sun-min speaks to Asia Times. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Kim noted that there are no fully effective drugs for treatment, and the majority of patients will not require ventilators – “which are not that expensive” – but that “keeping patients in negative pressure isolation wards is very important.”

These wards, established in specialist hospitals set up to deal with respiratory epidemics, prevent airborne diseases from escaping and infecting others. A machine sucks air into the ward, then filters it before releasing it back outside.  

Since a $25 million expansion in late May, South Korea has more than 1,000 beds available in these wards nationwide.

But given that the bulk of the specialized wards had been previously established by South Korea in the wake of the 2015 MERS epidemic, the country has managed the disease at a strikingly low cost.

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