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[Op-Ed] Medical Tourists

Posted August. 03, 2009 09:03,   


The Seoul Metropolitan City late last month offered a familiarization tour for 10 leading tourist companies and product developers in Japan. Oriental medicine therapies and skincare services in Korea were introduced. Gyeonggi Province sent representatives from seven hospitals in the province to Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty to hold a medical services PR session there. A call center will also be launched in Tokyo early this month to connect Korean hospitals and clinics with Japanese patients. A new Internet site is providing foreigners with counseling on medical tourism in Korea via translators.

Korea is lagging behind other countries in recognizing medical services as an industry. Thailand, Singapore, India and Malaysia have been attracting medical tourists from around the world. At one Thai hospital, more than half of the patients are foreigners. Korea has been negligent in catching up with this trend. The excellence of Korean plastic surgeons became widely known abroad thanks to the Korean Wave, or the popularity of Korean pop culture in Asia. Yet this failed to lead to more foreign patients in this country, partly due to a provision (Section 3, Article 27) of the Medical Service Act banning the introduction of patients to medical practitioners. Korea has been considered superior in orthopedics, dentistry and cardiovascular organ transplants, but has yet to capitalize on its advantage internationally due to administrative regulations.

Korean hospitals since last year have drastically changed services for foreign medical tourists. When a group of foreign patients arrive, the hospital director welcomes them in person and even their national anthem is played. This year, the Korean government singled out the medical industry as a growth engine. Following the enactment of the revised Medical Service Act May 1, hospitals can promote medical services to foreign patients. A medical tourist visa was introduced May 11, and foreign patients who make reservations at Korean hospitals can easily enter Korea. As a result of this changing environment, the number of foreign patients at six Korean hospitals jumped 41 percent year-on-year in May, higher than the 32-percent gain between January and April.

The global market for medical tourism is projected to reach 100 billion U.S. dollars in 2012. Forty countries are competing in this market. Korea lags behind its rivals in global visibility, and is less prepared for potential legal disputes over medical services. Korea is also trailing others in promotional capacity and in the competitiveness of its medical equipment industry. India and Thailand have mobilized top medical teams to cater to wealthy foreign patients. Nonetheless, the cost for coronary artery bypass grafting in the two countries is about 10 percent of that of the U.S. and far cheaper than in Korea. Korea needs a specific strategy to penetrate certain segments of the market by banking on its advantages and capacity to implement the strategy.

Editorial Writer Hong Kwon-hee (konihong@donga.com)