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Seoul Mayor’s idea on medical tourism

Posted January. 17, 2014 05:20,   


Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon came up with a surprising idea. He said at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Human Development Institute on last Thursday, “I’m thinking a lot to turn Seoul into a city of medical tourism.” The mayor said he would make the “Hongneung Valley” in Seoul where the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) is located a growth belt for medical tourism in Seoul.

In the 1970s, Hongneung and its neighboring areas had many think tanks, which led Korea’s economic growth. The Seoul metropolitan government is mulling over how to use the land after government think tanks such as the Korea Development Institute are relocated to provinces. Former President Lee Myung-bak said he would create a global green growth complex on the site two years ago, but the plan seems to be stalled now. The government may have to go back to square one.

The KIST, which is based in Hongneung, is dedicated to “anti-aging” research for aging society. Its neighboring area has many medical schools such as the College of Medicine of Korea University, and the College of Oriental Medicine, the College of Pharmacy, and the College of Medicine of Kyung Hee University, and also has many bioengineering and medical device startups. In terms of location, it is a good place to become a growth belt for medical tourism, a convergence industry.

The central government must make a decision first, but Mayor Park thinks the place as a foothold for the medial tourism industry. His idea seemed creative at a time when the Korean Medical Association was considering a strike against medical privatization. The city will commission a study to further develop the idea next month.

Many issues should be addressed for the Hongneung Valley to become a foothold of “K-Medical” like the mayor`s idea. Korea’s many medical skills are top in the world. Medical fees are also competitive as they are lower in Korea than many developed countries. However, Thailand, India, and Singapore, countries that focus on medical tourism, have highly developed medical technology and offer medical service with low medical fees.

Above all, Korea is inferior in non-medical service infrastructure such as traffic, accommodation, tourism, and interpretation. India created a government-private sector task force to promote medical tourism. This is why Korea falls behind Thailand, India, and Singapore. To compete with these countries, Korea should create infrastructure and eliminate regulations that block medical tourism.

Medical tourism is growing into a capital-intensive industry. Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment may be needed to attract foreign patients with competitive medical service. But many large Korean hospitals are tied up in regulations, while opposition parties are preventing legislation that can promote medical tourism.

Korea attracts only 10 to 20 percent of foreign patients in Thailand, India, and Singapore. It needs to think about how to attract wealthy Chinese patients. The medical tourism industry creates a huge added value and a large number of jobs. If Korea increases the number of foreign patients to one million by 2020, it would be able to generate over six trillion won (5.64 billion U.S. dollars) in revenue and 210,000 jobs.

Former Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Lee Myung-bak administrations tried to upgrade medical services by attracting foreign hospitals or for-profit hospitals. But the attempts to ease regulations failed due to the backlash from politicians and medical associations. Mayor Park is a former civic activist and from an opposition party. If he persuades stakeholders with sincerity to blur the lines between conservatives and liberals, it may work.

It is also important to create infrastructure and a foundation supporting medical tourism. What is more urgent is, however, easing regulations to free private hospital. Mayor Park, a civic activist-turned-administrator, is a person who has both a critical mind as an academic student and a down-to-earth mindset of a merchant. Hopefully, this could be an exception to what he said: “I want to be remembered as a mayor who did nothing.”