Two months ago, South Korea was the country second hardest-hit by COVID-19, after China. Although a few new cases arose last weekend, South Korea is now largely back on its feet and conducting business as usual, as much of the west battles with the darkest phase of the pandemic.
And digital healthcare has been at the heart of the country’s effective response to the virus – bringing major opportunities for western firms in the field.
The Korean government has long encouraged investment in its digital healthcare industry to combat rising medical costs and ensure the sustainability of its world-class medical care. AI technologies are already a feature of Korea’s medical industry, and they’ve contributed greatly to the country’s swift, flexible response to COVID-19.
As reports first emerged of the virus escalating in China, for example, Korean diagnostics company Seegene used AI to design a COVID-19 testing kit using only the genetic details available, without even having a sample. This compressed the development time and allowed the firm to submit its kit to the Korean regulatory bodies within just three weeks. Seegene has since also obtained US FDA emergency approval and now exports 95% of its kits, mostly to the US and other Asian countries.
South Korea’s decisive testing, tracing and isolating measures have also greatly been aided by the country’s digital healthcare infrastructure. AI and Big Data-based medical platforms, telemedicine and mobile applications for monitoring those in quarantine have helped the country rapidly develop early identification methods and implement containment policies.
This has given the government confidence that the country is heading in the right direction. President Moon has pledged to turn South Korea into a “digital powerhouse” - concentrating investment in biotech, as well as system semiconductors and future cars – heralding significant business openings for western firms in these fields.
AI-based drug development
In addition, AI is being used by Korean companies in drug development. According to the Ministry of Science & ICT, the Korean market for AI-driven drug development is expected to grow by 40% annually to reach USD $3.9 billion in 2024.
Dr Hyunjin Yang, Medical Science Executive Director at bioinformatics firm Syntekabio, told me her firm has identified 30 candidates for COVID-19 treatments after scanning 3,000 approved drugs worldwide using its AI drug discovery platform, DeepMatcher.
The company is now working with a biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) lab to validate the predicted results, after which it plans to initiate patent applications for COVID-19 use and explore collaborative preclinical and clinical work with the original developers.
Rise of telemedicine
At the same time, we’re seeing several healthcare providers starting to provide telemedicine services – previously banned in Korea due to opposition from doctors – to coronavirus patients.
Services include diagnoses, prescriptions and monitoring the status of COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms through video calls. Some hospitals are also using robots to test suspected patients, which allows doctors to avoid the risk of infection by working from separate rooms.
Telemedicine was used during the country’s MERS outbreak in 2015, despite the ban, so people are becoming increasingly aware of its potential. And a recent survey indicates most Korean citizens are open to trying it. I expect the country will take further steps to expedite the wide-scale adoption of telemedicine soon, and this represents big opportunities for western firms with relevant technologies.
For years now, the Korean government has been working closely with the private sector to encourage hospitals and healthcare companies to use the data they collect to help develop medicine for fatal illnesses, including infectious diseases.
Data privacy regulations have been relaxed and the government has been using data for disease surveillance and testing. The general public is increasingly supportive of such data uses to contain the coronavirus: recent surveys and my own conversations underline that most people prioritise public health over privacy concerns in the current circumstances.
Ultimately, Big Data has become one of the most important tools in the fight against the virus in Korea. As Bloomberg noted: “No-one is using Big Data as effectively as Korea to combat the coronavirus, even if it gets a little personal.”
Throughout this ordeal, we in Korea have received a flurry of emergency messages through the major telecom companies, with public information on the recent activities and whereabouts of confirmed patients. Corona 100m, a central tracking app, was launched on February 11 and, using government data, sends alerts if users come within 100 metres of a place visited by someone who’s had COVID-19.
Moreover, the Big Data-based Coronamap website provides the travel histories of confirmed patients.
To accelerate developments in the digital health sphere, the Korean government recently pushed through several regulatory reforms. These included clear standards for de-identification of personal information, a regulatory sandbox system and a shortened approval process for advanced medical devices based on AI and Big Data.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Science & ICT said it would speed up the use of personal information by enabling the convergence of public and private data. It plans to make 1,310 terabytes of data available to the private sector, including eight categories of healthcare data.
So, despite some isolated new infections, South Korea has done well in fighting the virus through smart, focused, data-driven measures which have largely enabled its economy to keep running.
Its recent regulatory changes, as well as its well-developed infrastructure and appetite for innovation, are opening ample opportunities for international companies looking to enter South Korea’s lucrative and rapidly-expanding digital health market.
If you’d like to discuss opportunities for your business in South Korea’s digital health field, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.