How South Korea Can Become a Global Pioneer in Productivity of Health Spending

Research by Stanford health economist Karen Eggleston, the director of APARC's Asia Health Policy Program, offers evidence on the link between medical spending and health outcomes in South Korea, showing how the country can benefit from developing a “satellite account for health” to promote high-value innovations for longer, healthier lives.
A figure dressed as a medical personnel holding a stethoscope and a blurry image of the South Korean flag in the background. Marco Verch via Flickr

Do increases in medical spending improve health outcomes? To answer this question, analysts need to quantify the net value of medical spending and measure the productivity of medical care with the output of improvement in survival and quality of life, thereby deducing for what medical conditions the “bang for the buck” is greatest and for what conditions spending outstrips gains in health improvement.

This condition-specific, quality-adjusted net value approach to health spending is known as a “satellite account for health” because it “orbits around” the national income and product accounts that include aggregate health spending to provide a clearer picture of productivity in the health sector. Thus far, researchers have applied this account to the U.S. health sector only, but it would be highly beneficial for many economies. One notable beneficiary would be South Korea, one of the most rapidly aging societies globally. Now new research by Karen Eggleston, the director of APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program, studies the link between medical spending and health outcomes in South Korea, providing evidence on the productivity of medical spending over recent decades.

The research, published by the East-West Center, develops an estimate of the net value of Korean medical spending, which has outpaced most other countries in recent decades. To generate this estimate, Eggleston compares the gains in life expectancy at birth to the increases in medical spending for 2000–2019. Data comes from Korean lifetables and medical expenditures per capita, available from the Korean Statistical Information Services.


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Korea can develop an accurate measure of medical productivity and a more accurate measure of overall economic productivity while becoming a global pioneer of “health satellite accounts” for overall populations.
Karen Eggleston

Eggleston shows that, even with the most conservative assumptions ($50,000 per life-year and only 10 percent of health gains due to medical care), the net value of Korean medical spending is positive and substantial. Korean life expectancy at birth increased from 76 in 2000 to 83.3 in 2019, while lifetime medical spending increased by over $19,000. The value of 7.3 additional years of life far outweighs even this rapid increase in spending, implying substantial productivity growth in Korea’s health sector.

Moreover, evidence on condition-specific spending changes and health improvements suggests that Korea’s rapid spending increases yield significant net value. Eggleston’s research indicates that improvements in survival for key conditions afflicting Koreans, such as stroke and cancer, point to productivity gains. “Korea could be a pioneer in developing a national health account that accurately measures net value by medical condition,” she writes.

Condition-specific metrics of health gain per won spent on treatment can help to guide the allocation of investments to promote longer, healthier lives. In the future, analysts could also link condition-specific improvements in survival and morbidity to earnings. Such linkage would particularly benefit South Korea, where focusing on the productivity of older adult employment is crucial given its high labor force participation and relatively low income of older Koreans.

Eggleston advocates for the Korean government to develop a national satellite account for health that can provide valuable evidence for prioritizing investments to address the country’s most pressing health challenges so that productivity improvement will contribute to longer, healthier lives. “By linking National Health Insurance and health outcome data, Korea could develop an accurate measure of medical productivity and a more accurate measure of overall economic productivity, while pioneering development of ‘health satellite accounts’ for overall populations,” Eggleston argues.

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