OECD Reviews of Public Health: Korea

A Healthier Tomorrow

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This review assesses Korea's public health system, highlights areas of strength and weakness, and makes a number of recommendations for improvement. The review examines Korea's public health system architecture, and how well policies are responding to population health challenges, including the growing burden of chronic disease, and resulting pressures on the health system. In particular, the review assesses Korea’s policies to prevent harmful alcohol use, and the risks and opportunities around public health genomics in Korea, which is both a growing field in the health sector, and a booming commercial industry. The review also examines Korea's exposure to public health emergencies, and capacity to respond to emergencies as and when they occur.


Executive summary

The time is now for Korea to turn full policy attention towards strengthening its public health system, tackling key behavioural risks, and preparing for potential technological change in the health sector – notably the growing importance of precision medicine – and preparing for public health emergencies. At present Korea’s population is relatively young, compared to OECD peers, but is aging very rapidly. Rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption are just below the OECD average, with Koreans consuming 8.7l of pure alcohol per capita in 2017 (about two bottles of wine per week), compared to the OECD average of 8.9l), and obesity rates well below the OECD average. These figures hide, however, a complex picture. Korean men are heavy smokers, alcohol consumption is relatively high and ‘binge’ drinking is a widespread and growing concern, with Korean men, and younger Korean women, drinking heavily at least once a month. Child overweight levels (at 31.8% of 5-9 year olds) are just above the OECD average of 31.4%. Compounding this potentially challenging picture is Korea’s health care system design which is, for the moment, still strongly orientated towards specialist and hospital-centric care delivery. Korea’s rapidly aging population, combined with risky health behaviour amongst some population groups, and high rates of obesity amongst children, now risk endangering many of the significant achievements Korea has made in increasing life expectancy and population health outcomes over the past decades.


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