DuoDerm and the Korean Medical System

DuoDerm is a Hydrocolloid Dressing, a high-tech bandage straight out of a sci-fi novel. It’s an adhesive film that can be taped over a wound, does not need any other ointment, can be worn in the shower, and can last for days before it needs to be replaced. It uses the fluids from the wound to help hydrate and heal the skin. Really amazing stuff, but you’ve probably never heard of it. The technology was developed in the USA, but it took an injury in Korea for me to find out about it.

I discovered DuoDerm in Seoul. Over the past couple weeks, due to the summer heat and wearing sandals every day, the skin of my feet have dried out and I’ve been getting painful fissures on my heels. Being accustomed to a functional medical system, my wife and mother-in-law insisted that I go to see a dermatologist. A 5 minute walk to a clinic, a 10 minute wait, 60 minutes of treatment, and only $50 (without insurance!) later, I had a solid diagnosis, a few weeks of prescription anti-fungal lotion, some specialized moisturizer, and a DuoDerm-bandaged foot. It was fantastic – my feet are living in the future.

But this isn’t a story about how great DuoDerm or the Korean medical system are. Rather it’s a lamentation of the US system, which seems broken on many levels.

Preconceptions. As an American, I have been trained that seeing a doctor is an expensive and time-consuming process, let alone seeing a medical specialist like a dermatologist. Let alone seeing a specialist when I don’t have any medical coverage. I wouldn’t have even considered going were it not for my in-laws insisting upon it.

Human capital. In the US, doctors time-slice patients, spending the minimum amount of time with each patient. The same is true in Korea. However, in Korea, you pay a ridiculously small amount for that sliver of time. The government is committed to providing healthcare for everybody, and they make sure that it is affordable even for those lacking insurance.

Technology. DuoDerm was developed by ConvaTec, a US company, over 20 years ago, but I bet most Americans haven’t heard of it. The one Korean I mentioned it to said she uses it regularly. There also seems to be an enthusiasm to stay on the cutting edge here, which is wonderful. Prescription drugs and other medical treatments are also much cheaper in Korea, presumably due to government policy, and as a consequence people are able to actually benefit from technological innovations. 

So fine, I fixed my foot. It probably would have healed in a few more days anyway. Big deal, right? Once you have a strong, functional, and convenient medial system, a lot of other possibilities open up.

Preventative medicine. Chief among these possibilities is preventative medicine. Korean companies pay for their employees to take comprehensive health exams every year. With these exams, they can catch diseases at their early stages when they are easy to treat. This is particularly important for cancer, which can often be easily treated if it’s caught in the early phases. As a consequence, Korea is making great headway at fighting cancer nationally.

Medical tourism. It also enables a blossoming medical tourism industry. Korea’s top-class medical care and low prices are bringing in patients from all over the world for everything from complex treatments to cosmetic surgery. While Korea is a latecomer to the business, like everything it does, it’s going all out with “Medi-tourism” signs in the airports, and other an international marketing campaign.

Exports. Korea has even started exporting its medical systems and management skills to the Middle East, potentially opening up yet another market for their considerable expertise.

I sincerely hope that the US can learn from Korea, especially when it comes to healthcare. The longer I spend here, the more clear it becomes that we are living in the past, while the rest of the world shoots by, both by investing in its citizens and continually pushing the envelope on technology, practices, and business models.

Image courtesy of David Arnall, Ph.D.

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