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South Korea cracks down on medical corruption

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7185.692b (Published 13 March 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:692
  1. Joanne McManus
  1. Hong Kong

    In late January, the head of South Korea's Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) was arrested on bribery charges. According to local press reports (in the Korea Herald and Korea Times), Park Jong-se was charged with receiving 185m won (£94000, $150000) between 1992 and 1995 from an executive of a pharmaceutical company, allegedly in exchange for helping new medicines developed by the company pass government safety tests.

    Park, who has denied the charges, had been head of the country's food and drug administration since March 1998. In mid-February, Kim Yon-pan, the director general of the pharmaceutical safety bureau at the administration, was also arrested. He was charged with receiving 36m won from 11 local pharmaceutical companies since January 1998 in exchange for approving new drugs.

    The arrests are the result of an investigation into corruption in the medical sector, which was ordered by Kim Dae-jung, South Korea's president. Bribing officials to approve new drugs is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Corruption is widespread throughout the healthcare sector, and suppliers, hospitals, and doctors all take part. Local experts estimate it amounts to more than 2trn won each year. Irregularities in transacted medical insurance prices among drug and medical device manufacturers, wholesalers, and medical institutions are also being scrutinised.

    According to Lee Ja-hee, the president of M&C International, a healthcare consulting firm based in Seoul, the prices of 14000 items involving 303 medical centres across the nation have been investigated. As a result, prices are expected soon to be slashed by 20 Lee Yu-jai, the president and chief editor of Journal M, a leading medical magazine in South Korea, is an outspoken critic of corruption in the healthcare industry.

    “Although several successive presidents have declared a war against corruption, it is still alive. Institutionalised corruption in the form of scholarships, rebates, and the like still goes around,” he said. “It is wrong. We need to shift our customary practice and mind set.”

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