By Lee Hyo-jin
A pilot program rolled out by the government to include several types of herbal medicine in treatments covered by national health insurance was welcomed by practitioners of traditional Korean medicine. It, however, immediately provoked backlash from Western medical doctors.
As the government has plans to expand the coverage for more herbal medicine in the future following the progress of the trial program, the mixed reactions of the two medical groups may deepen into another dispute.
Under the pilot program, which started on Nov. 20, patients at traditional Korean medicine clinics who are prescribed treatments for menstrual pain, facial paralysis, or the aftereffects of cerebrovascular diseases, pay only half of the fee for the herbal medicine, as the rest is covered by state insurance.
The three-year test run is aimed at reducing the financial burden of patients and establishing a verified system to ensure the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicine, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Around 8,700 clinics providing traditional Korean medicine treatments across the country ― approximately 62 percent of the total ― have agreed to participate in the program.
Why Western medical doctors oppose
The announcement was immediately met with strong backlash from the Korea Medical Association (KMA), the largest Western medical doctors’ group in the country with more than 130,000 members. The association strongly condemned the government’s decision through a press release, calling it a “nationwide clinical trial using unverified medicine.”
They argued that easing public access to traditional Korean medicine and related herbal therapy will pose a risk to people’s health as they claim the safety of the treatments have not been adequately verified and there is no scientific evidence for their efficacy.
The association also pointed out that the program may lead to poor quality of herbal medicine, due to a shortage of certified herbal medication dispensaries and lenient control over them. While most small traditional Korean medicine clinics have own dispensaries, some large ones have outside dispensaries make the medicine.
“There are only five outside herbal medication dispensaries in the country certified by the government. This means that those five facilities will be preparing all the herbal medicines for over 8,700 clinics during the pilot program period,” KMA member Kim Gyo-woong said at a press conference, Nov. 23.
“The mass production system may lead to failure in quality control and safety issues, and considering the current lax control over dispensaries, the system may lead to illicit manufacturing of drugs,” he added.
In addition, the KMA stressed that the health authorities should focus more on the unresolved issues surrounding the side effects of traditional medicine.
More than half of medical disputes reported in relation to traditional medicine treatments were about herbal medicine, followed by Chuna manual therapy, acupuncture, and skin care, the association said, citing recent data from the Korea Consumer Agency.
“The government must immediately retract the policy which only puts public safety at risk, and launch a full investigation on all herbal dispensaries and prohibit the operation