KOREA: Law limiting medical ads unconstitutional

Medical groups given more marketing freedom, but civic groups react cautiously

The Korea Times
Thursday, October 27, 2005

By Kim Tong-hyung

Medical doctors and hospitals will be allowed to advertise their services more freely as the Constitutional Court Thursday declared the current law strictly regulating medical ads unconstitutional.

The current health-care law prevents hospitals and private medical institutions from marketing the methods and capabilities of their services through print or broadcasting.

They are only allowed to provide basic information such as the type of clinical services they are offering, the type of facilities they have and the number of staff members they employ.

However, civic groups are reacting cautiously to the ruling, saying that it could create a more competitive medical market that could eventually threaten public health.

Six of the nine judges of the court ruled against the current law limiting medical institutions from marketing their services directly to consumers, saying that it infringes on the freedom of medical institutions to pursue profits and the rights of patients to choose better services.

The debate over medical advertisements erupted in 2002 when a Seoul ophthalmologist lodged a constitutional complaint after he was indicted for allegedly marketing his services on the Internet.

"Direct-to-consumer advertising could empower the patient to learn more about medical options if they are based on accurate information. It could also result in a healthy competition between medical institutes that could benefit the quality of health-care services eventually," the court said.

The three judges expressing the minority opinion stated that medical advertisements should be thought as separate than marketing efforts in conventional consumer industries as they could threaten public health by generating false and exaggerated information.

The Korean Medical Association released a statement welcoming the court decision, saying that the health-care law limiting medical advertisements is outdated.

However, the Health Right Network and other civic groups claim that the courtís decision may cause problems in public health.