Written by Jee Eun Yi and Christian Schneider, STC, Embassy of Switzerland in Seoul
Growth of rapid ageing population is one of the major challenges for Korea to overcome. This phenomenon is taking place throughout the world but the speed of growth in Korea is much faster than any other developed countries. Currently, the age of 65 or more population accounts for about 13.1 % of whole population. Already in 15 years, by 2030, this rate would almost double to 24.3% and in 2060, the elderly population would take about 40% of overall population in Korea.
Two Major reasons driving rapid growth of ageing population in Korea
Korean people are living longer than the past since the life expectancy at birth jumped from 48.2 to 81.9 in 1953 and 2014, according to UNWPP (United Nations World Population Prospects) data. This dramatic rise of life expectancy is one of the reasons for rapid demographic changes in Korea and coincides with Korea’s remarkable economic growth over the last decades.
Another contributor to rapid growth of ageing population is the low fertility rate. In the late 1980s, following government promotion, married couples were encouraged to have fewer children and it was an extremely effective policy from the government with the side-effect of eventually speeding up the decline of Korean population. Further recent declines however can be more attributed to the difficulties Korean women face to start a family and remain active in professional life.
How are elderly people taken care of?
According to Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) report based on Statistics Korea data, the population in Korea is constantly ageing and anticipated that it will be a real burden for younger populations to support an ageing society in the future. In addition, an important cultural shift in regards to how elderly people are taken care of in Korea is taking place. Back in 1998, 89.9% respondents who aged 15 or more thought children should support their parents as they get old and need care, but this figure plummeted to 31.7% in 2014. Even though a minority of Koreans now plans to take care of their parents at home as they will need care, the government’s support system (elderly care homes and health insurance) cannot keep up.
The rise of ageing population also impacts on Korea’s future socio-economic environment. As the proportion of senior citizens become larger, a lower proportion of working age population can be expected and this will ultimately bring up issues like rising fiscal burdens, capital shortages and lower growth potential.
Government Support and Policymakers’ actions
What’s being done for providing solutions for ever-increased elderly population?
Expand the existing National Pension System (NPS) by setting the income replacement rate high for those with a low income level and low for those with high income level. The purpose of the NPS was to provide retirees the guaranteed income upon their retirement for sustainable standard of living regardless of their income levels before. In addition, since 2013, the retirement eligible age has been increased by one year for each five years until 2033. So, the final eligible age will become 65.
National Health Insurance System in Korea
Korea has a universal health insurance system and the program particularly provides the same amount of medical expenses and reimbursements for all citizens, regardless of their economic status. The insurance is funded by contributions, government subsidies, and tobacco surcharges and the National Health Insurance Corporation is the main supervising institution. It administers long-term care services for the elderly. The Ministry of Health and Welfare sets regulations for which diseases and treatments are included in the health insurance system and has continuously expanded coverage for diseases related to elderly people (e.g. dental implant plant surgery for elderly effective from July 2016).
Promotion of Healthy Ageing with Healthy Care System
On the regional level, the Mayor of Seoul City established care centers in each district of Seoul (25 districts in total) in order to help the elderly population in addition to national policies. Regional district health centers try to monitor the health of elderly people living alone by dispatching nurses and offer cheap services locally in the centers. The concept of social and health care innovation is now under discussion by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to apply this strategy nationally.
Telemedicine in Korea
Korea ranks highly in adoption and availability of digital ICT technologies so one would expect it to be a leader in telemedicine and related fields. In fact, Korean hospitals do use advanced technologies to manage and take care of patients and many Korean companies such as Korea Telecom and SK Telecom are actively involved in this business.
Due to aging population increases in society and continuous increase of chronic disease prevalence, telehealth could be a solution to meet the demand for more medical services including for elderly people. Especially since many elderly people in Korea are residing in rural areas or remote islands where it is difficult for them to visit a medical clinic, remote solutions to health care are needed.
However, large-scale telemedicine is still forbidden in Korea even though the Government is pushing effective laws to allow telemedicine in Korea. The Government expects significant industrial benefits through telehealth application in terms of development of medical equipment, wireless communication network, data processing, software and other industries, including export of these technologies abroad.
For now, pilot tests were conducted for telemedicine in those areas. In July 2015, the emergency telemedicine cooperation treatment (ETCT) trial among medical centers in low services until the end of February 2016. The purpose was to assess the validity of the program and the potential expansion of application of the national health insurance fee model to establish a systemic foundation. Also it was for medical insurance to compensate the treatment costs incurred by emergency patients and quick transfer. They believed that quality of medical services may be improved through such telemedicine application.
Case Study – Swiss Korean R&D Collaboration Project: Example of DomoSafety
Domo Safety is a Swiss start-up based at EPFL in Lausanne and offers a variety of health services for elderly people such as detecting and anticipating emergency situations like falls, and chronic disease management (e.g. Dementia, heart issue or Parkinson’s disease). Local care centers get alerted if a patient suffers a fall or is likely to experience a problem in the near future.
In Korea, DomoSafety is engaged in R&D and market expansion. Domo was the first Swiss company to receive a CTI (Commission for Technology and Innovation) project grant together with its Korean partners from the Swiss-Korean bilateral call and is partnering with several universities and hospitals in Korea to improve its system. R&D cooperation is used to improve its own algorithm, e.g. by including Parkinson patients, and to adapt the system to the local Korean needs. With the Chung-Ang University College of Nursing and several district health center in Seoul, Domo is conducting tests to monitor several hundred elderly Koreans’ health remotely . This common R&D project introduces a high-tech early-warning monitoring system with technology previously not available in Korea to the local market. The project introduced to the President of the Swiss Confederation, Johann Schneider-Ammann on his visit to Korea in July 2016.
More information about the project can be found here: