Electronic Healthcare Records are but one realm in which IT can improve the workflow and processes in the healthcare industry. While the industry in the US is just starting to standardize and improve on its EHR systems through the HITECH act, other technologically-advanced countries are going beyond simple recording of patient data. In South Korea, the so-called Ubiquitous Health (U-health) initiative will entail continuous monitoring of patient information even while outside of the hospital setting.

The concept of U-health will involve monitoring of a patient's vital statistics virtually anywhere -- hence the term "ubiquitous." These can include blood pressure, blood sugar, body weight, cholesterol levels and ECGs. Monitoring can also include physical activity, exercises, eating habits and other everyday habits that might be relevant to one's health.

Big Brother?

U-health might sound like the beginnings of an Orwellian scenario, in which a person will no longer have any privacy due to persistent recording of health-related information even outside of a hospital setting, but the rationale behind U-health seems to be more pragmatic and benevolent. This will help minimize triage times and will help monitor patients with chronic conditions.

It will be good to keep in mind that South Korea is among the most connected countries in the world, with an almost 100% broadband penetration rate. This makes it an ideal environment for a ubiquitous connection with one's doctor or healthcare professional.

A Growing Healthcare Industry

A Frost & Sullivan research report says that the healthcare IT (HIT) industry in South Korea is poised for growth, having earned US$ 92.8 million in revenue in 2009, and growing with a compound growth rate of 6.8 annually to US$ 147.3 million by 2016. The country is also heavily promoting its healthcare industry through medical tourism, with about 70,000 medical tourists expected each year.

According to research analyst Amritpall Singh, a formidable HIT industry will be a necessary foundation for South Korea in its plans to establish U-health. "Information collected from patients needs to be secured and delivered real-time to physicians to be of use to the medical professions," he says. To this end, the South Korean government is spending US$ 151.50 billion from 2009 through 2013 to improve its IT competitiveness across the board, which includes healthcare. This includes the National Health Information Infrastructure, which is implementing EHR systems across hospitals in the country.

On the supply-side, Companies like General Electric, HP and InterComponentWare have expressed an interest to expand their presence into the country for U-health research and development.

Challenges Ahead

Even with a growing industry, though, South Korea faces shortages in terms of human resources. The HIT industry is said to be lacking in capable professionals who can develop the required systems for EHR and U-health. The Korean government is trying to recruit foreign talent, as well as pushing IT-related programs in its local universities, to help address this shortage.

Another challenge is the integration of healthcare systems with existing platforms and protocols in the hospitals. Physicians do need to establish their role in the whole healthcare IT environment. The aim here is for HIT to complement the doctor's work and enhance workflow rather than hinder it.

Even with the challenges, proponents of the U-health system are confident that this can be achieved in time. Frost & Sullivan predicts that South Korea will eventually reach a fully-integrated healthcare system by 2015. Until then, it's a question of finding the right platform and technology.