South Korea

  • Summary
  • Healthcare
    system
  • Health
    insurance
  • Facts and figures
  • Medical Tourism
  • Events
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  • Industry
    participants

Healthcare system

The standard of healthcare in public and private hospitals is good, but patchy in rural areas. More than 90% of the medical facilities are run by the private sector. Every hospital is obliged to provi ...

Health insurance

The healthcare system is based on a social health insurance model that is compulsory for the whole population. The National Health Insurance (NHI) is administered by the National Health Insurance Corp ...

Facts and figures

Capital : Seoul
Population : 48.6 million
Healthcare expenditure : 1,702.6 US $
No. of doctors : 114322


 
 
 

Medical tourism

Within this section, you will find published information on medical tourism numbers, our estimate of inbound and outbound medical tourism, and IMTJ news and external news that provide estimates of med ...
 
Inbound patients : 365,000
Outbound patients : 20,000
 

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Healthcare system

South Korea flag

The standard of healthcare in public and private hospitals is good, but patchy in rural areas. More than 90% of the medical facilities are run by the private sector. Every hospital is obliged to provide medical services covered by NHI to the insured and their dependents.

Health insurance

Health Insurance - State

The healthcare system is based on a social health insurance model that is compulsory for the whole population. The National Health Insurance (NHI) is administered by the National Health Insurance Corporation (NHIC).

All employees, employers, public servant, teachers and their dependents are covered by employment-based insurance. All residents in rural areas and the self-employed in cities are covered by self-employed insurance.

NHI is financed through monthly contributions from the insured and their employers, and government subsidies. Health insurance does not cover the full cost of treatment. The patient must pay 20% of inpatient care and 30 to 60% of outpatient care, and 30% of the cost of prescription drugs. The patient pays for services not covered in the NHIC package.

Facts and figures

General InformationSource

Capital : Seoul
Population : 48.6 million
Main languages spoken : Korean
Main religion : Buddhism, Christianity; nearly half of adults profess no religion
International dialling code : +82
Internet domain : .kr
Gross National income (GNI) per capita : 33440 US $
WHO 2015

Tourism data

International inbound tourists : 17242000 arrivals
World Bank 2015
International outbound tourists : 22383000 departures
World Bank 2015

Population profile

Life expectancy (male) : 85.2 years
OECD / WHO 2015
Life expectancy (female) : 85.2 years
OECD / WHO 2015
Population over 65 : 6559.704 Thousand persons
UN 2015
Population over 80 : 1337.676 Thousand persons
UN 2015

Healthcare workforce

Physicians (total) : 114322 persons
OECD 2016
Physicians (per 1,000 population) : 2.24 per 1,000 population
OECD 2016
General Medical Practitioners (total) : 31743 persons
OECD 2016
General Medical Practitioners (per 1,000 population) : 0.62 per 1,000 population
OECD 2016
Specialist Medical Practitioners (total) : 85707 persons
OECD 2016
Specialist Medical Practitioners (per 1,000 population) : 1.67 per 1,000 population
OECD 2016
Nurses (total) : 348401 persons
OECD 2016
Nurses (per 1,000 population) : 5.01 per 1,000 population
OECD 2016
Dentists (total) : 24150 persons
OECD 2016
Dentists (per 1,000 population) : 0.45 per 1,000 population
OECD 2016

Healthcare expenditure

Healthcare expenditure per capita : 1,702.6 US $
WHO 2012
Healthcare expenditure as % of GDP : 7.6 percentage
WHO 2015
Government expenditure on health as % of total government expenditure : 11.7 percentage
WHO 2015
Per capita government expenditure on health : 1223 US $
WHO 2015
Private expenditure on health as a percentage of total expenditure on health : 45.5 percentage
WHO 2015

Healthcare provision

All hospitals : 3678 hospitals
OECD 2016
Public hospitals : 212 hospitals
OECD 2016
Private hospitals : No data available
OECD 2012
Total hospital beds : 588381 beds
OECD 2016
No of hospital beds (per 1,000 population) : 11.53 beds
OECD 2016
CT scanners (per 1 million population) : 37.8 scanners
OECD 2016
MRI scanners (per 1 million population) : 27.81 scanners
OECD 2016
PET scanners (per 1 million population) : 4.06 scanners
OECD 2016

Healthcare activity

Hospital discharges : 8373369 patients
OECD 2016
Coronary angioplasty (per 100,000) : 121.5 procedures
OECD 2016
Hip replacement (per 100,000) : 53.4 procedures
OECD 2016
Knee replacement (per 100,000) : 121 procedures
OECD 2016
Cataract surgery (per 100,000) : 964.3 procedures
OECD 2016
Hospitals - Average length of stay : 16.1 days
OECD 2016
Hospitals - Occupancy : 71.6 percentage
OECD 2003

Health profile

Breast cancer: Female mortality rate (per 100,000) : 8.2 deaths
OECD 2016
Prostate cancer: Male mortality rate (per 100,000) : 6.4 deaths
OECD 2016
Ischemic heart disease: Male mortality rate (per 100,000) : 48.8 deaths
OECD 2016
Ischemic heart disease: Female mortality rate (per 100,000) : 30 deaths
OECD 2016
Deaths due to HIV/AIDS (per 100 000 population) : 0.2 deaths
OECD 2016
Prevalence of Obesity (BMI >30) : 5.3 percentage
OECD 2017

Cosmetic surgery

Number of plastic surgeons : 2330 surgeons
ISAPS 2016
Total cosmetic: All procedures : No data available
ISAPS 2013
Total cosmetic: Surgical procedures : No data available
ISAPS 2013
Breast procedures : No data available
ISAPS 2013
Face and head procedures : No data available
ISAPS 2013
Total cosmetic: Non-surgical procedures : No data available
ISAPS 2013

Obesity surgery

Number of operations performed : 1684 procedures
Metabolic / Bariatric Surgery Worldwide 2014
Number of metabolic/bariatric surgeons : No data available
Metabolic / Bariatric Surgery Worldwide 2011

Medical tourism

Introduction

Within this section, you will find published information on medical tourism numbers, our estimate of inbound and outbound medical tourism, and IMTJ news and external news that provide estimates of medical tourism activity in South Korea.

The IMTJ estimates for South Korea are based on the information that we gather and our view of the validity and credibility of this data. It is our view of what the real number of medical travellers is likely to be i.e. the number of patients who specifically travel for the primary purpose of healthcare. "No data available" means that there is insufficient information to be able to make any kind of realistic estimate.

Inbound medical tourists : 365,000
Outbound medical tourists : 20,000

IMTJ Commentary

Inbound medical tourism

South Korea is becoming one of the major centres for medical tourism in Asia. Health care in South Korea is cheap and extremely efficient. Most of the hospitals belong to the private sector and are staffed by doctors with international qualifications. The hospitals are equipped with the latest technology and medical equipment. The hospitals and clinics are of world-class standards. Most of the doctors speak some English. South Korea has been able to establish itself as a major centre for cosmetic surgery.

The country takes an aggressive and organized approach to medical tourism, with massive government backing and support. Although it still majors on cosmetic surgery with hundreds of clinics dealing with overseas patients, it has expanded into cancer treatment, minor surgery, dental, eye care and medical check-ups.

South Korea’s medical tourism market is growing, but is behind that of Thailand and Malaysia - all strong competitors. The country is also competing with India, the Philippines, Japan, and China.

The South Korean government has a plan for the promotion of the seven service industry sectors including medical, tourism. According to the 2016 plan, telemedicine services are to be allowed in regions with a limited access to medical services such as islands while medical and health information of public agencies are opened to the public for the creation of new industries. Exactly how this will help medical tourism is so far unclear.

Medical tourists visiting South Korea for treatment tend to come from Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and USA.

All hospitals in Korea are non-profit ones run by non-profit corporations that must reinvest proceeds only for medical purposes. In 2012, the health ministry changed its regulations to allow for-profit hospitals in eight free economic zones and Jeju Island if half of the total amount of investment comes from foreign investors. Local patients can receive treatment at for-profit hospitals if they forgo their health insurance cover.

The ministry's approval of the first profit-oriented hospital sparked fears that it will serve to open the floodgates for more of them across the nation as rich local patients, dissatisfied with current medical services, flock to them.

Detractors warn that the spread of for-profit hospitals will result in higher medical costs and, bringing chaos to the universal health insurance system.

2018 data

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, South Korea spends $1 billion a year attracting medical tourists. There are 1,709 registered hospitals/clinics and 1,413 licenced private businesses that can engage in marketing to attract medical tourists.

Data from KTO Vietnam shows that nearly 7,500 Vietnamese citizens visited South Korea for medical tourism last year.

Russia has the second largest number of foreign patients who visit Incheon, followed by China. The number of Russian patients who visited Incheon increased 66% in 2018, despite the small 2% decrease in the total number of Russian patients visiting Korea.

According to COTRI, Indonesia, South Korea and the USA have declined as destinations for China's medical tourists. Most of the top 15 arrival destinations for Chinese outbound tourism in H1 2018 have seen double-digit year-on-year growth. The three exceptions are Indonesia (-0.7%), which has suffered from volcanic activity; South Korea (-3.7%), which is still recovering from last year’s group tourism ban; and the USA (-9.5%), which has ended a decade of positive growth.

2017 data

In the first four months of 2017, Korea National Tourism Organization reported a 25.8% year-to-date decline in arrivals from China, its largest feeder market, due to diplomatic and trade tensions between the two countries.

In March 2017, Beijing banned travel agencies in the country from selling package tours bound for South Korea as economic retaliation, casting a pall over South Korea's tourism industry that depends heavily on Chinese tourists.

According to the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), international patient numbers have grown from 60,000 in 2009 to 364,000 in 2016. Data is collected from participating hospitals and clinics and compiled centrally. Professor Jin Ki Nam, from Yonsei University has taken on the task of trying to measure the return on investment which KHIDI has made in promoting medical tourism to the regions and cities of Korea. He estimates that in 2015, Seoul/Gangseo-gu delivered a return of $101 in patient income for each dollar invested by the central and provincial government. In contrast, the return in the Gyeonggi province fell to $19.

Plans are in place to boost its support and offer more medical tourism packages, with the aim of attracting 400,000 by 2018. South Korea's government expects more than one million medical tourists to visit the country annually by 2020.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare has approved the establishment of South Korea’s first foreign-owned for-profit hospital despite protests from civic groups and medical organizations.

China's Greenland Group will build the three-storey Greenland International Hospital on Jeju Island. The company plans to open the hospital with 47 beds in March 2017. It will offer cosmetic surgery, skincare and physical check-ups.

A medical tourism hotel with clinics will be built in Yongsan, central Seoul, as early as 2017 according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The aim is to attract more medical tourists to Seoul by offering better facilities for them, as it is designated as the first medical tourism hotel in the country. Such a concept was not legal until a new law passed in June 2014 which changed that, allowing the establishment of such facilities to become possible.

City government has approved a development plan to build what will be a 34-storey luxury hospital where each patient will have individual hotel style accommodation also. The hotel will cover eight medical areas including cosmetic surgery, and will also offer medical checks or the elderly. Half of the building will be a hotel with 390 rooms, and the rest will offer medical and health care.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2017 saw 321,574 medical tourists, a 12% drop on 364,189 in 2016. Medical tourism revenue was US$806.2 million in 2017, a drop of 26% from 2016.

According to the Korea Herald, Seoul City claims that 9,600 Mongolians visited Seoul in 2017 to receive medical services.  Mongolians accounted for the fifth-highest number of medical tourists to the city.

According to Seoul City, of the medical tourists who visited Seoul in 2017, Mongolians accounted for the fifth-highest number.  9,600 Mongolians visited Seoul as medical tourists in 2017. The South Korean capital city also sees medical tourism potential in co-operation between South and North Korea.

According to the Korea Tourism Organisation, Mongolian medical tourists stay in Korea for an average of 35.6 days, well the average stay of 17.7 days for medical tourists of all nationalities. On average Mongolian medical and health tourists also spend 10 days sightseeing.

To avoid being dependent on Chinese and Japanese medical tourists, Seoul has targeted ten countries; Russia, India, Mongolia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong.  Russian medical tourists are gradually increasing.

Vietnamese medical tourists come to Korea for cosmetic surgery.  According to the Korea Health Industry Development Institute, the number of Vietnamese patients increased eightfold from 921 in 2010 to 7,447 in 2017.

The article states the visitors spent a combined 215 billion won (US$213.8m), accounting for 33.6% of total revenue from foreign patients. Tourist spending in cosmetic surgery has jumped nearly fourfold from 2012.

While plastic surgery tourism has been on the rise, the total tally of medical tourists to Korea fell 6.5% on year to 397,882 in 2017. They also reduced their spending by 25.6%to 639.9 billion won (US$570m).

In patient counts, internal or general medicine had the most visits from non-Korean residents with a share of 20.2%. Cosmetic surgery and dermatology followed at 12.3% and 10.9%, respectively, showing that one fifth of medical tourists come to Korea for cosmetic purposes. Medical examination came fourth at 9.8%.

When looking at the medical expenses per capita, cosmetic surgery was the highest at 4.4 million won, followed by general surgery at 2.98 million won, pediatrics at 2.77 million won and neurosurgery at 1.95 million won.

Earlier in 2018, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said 321,574 medical tourists visited South Korea in 2017.

A survey found Korea’s recognition as a destination for medical tourism stood at 32.5%, behind the US’s 39% and Germany’s 33.6%.  Showing above-average rate of recognition of Korea as a medical tourism destination were Vietnamese respondents with 62.3%, Chinese (49.3%) and Thais (45.3%).

2016 data

The number of foreigners visiting South Korea for medical purposes came to 452,380 in 2016.

An increasing number of patients were from Uzbekistan, Vietnam and the Philippines. There were over 7200 patients from Middle Eastern countries including 700 United Arab Emirates nationals on a Dubai government programme. Most UAE patients sought treatment for serious and complex medical conditions or illnesses such as cancer or stroke, or to undergo transplant.

According to The Ministry of Health and Welfare, a fifth of patients sought treatment for internal medicine (20%), followed by cosmetic surgery (11.3 %) and dermatology (11.1 %).

Most of these foreigners tended to combine their medical treatment with tourism, with 62.5 percent answering they have done so or plan to in the future in a survey conducted by Yonhap.

A complete breakdown of treatments received by foreign patients, according to The Ministry of Health and Welfare:

  • Internal medicine    20%
  • Cosmetic surgery    11.3%
  • Dermatology    11.1%
  • Health check-up    8.3%
  • Orthopaedics    5.7%
  • General surgery    5.4%
  • Traditional Korean medicine    4.2%
  • Dental treatment    3.2%
  • Neurosurgery    3.1%
  • Eye surgery    2.9%
  • Ear/nose/throat    2.9%
  • Urology    2.1%
  • Other    16.2%

Of the patients that received cosmetic treatments, Chinese nationals accounted for 57.7 percent, trailed by Japanese with 5.7 percent. Other major nationalities included the US, Thailand, Russia and Singapore.

A growing number of patients sought treatment for cancer or stroke, transplants and rehabilitation as well as traditional Korean medicine and obstetrics/gynaecology. 18,011 foreign individuals sought treatment with traditional Korean medicine, up 36.3% from 2015 and 23,081 visited obstetricians/gynaecologists, up 21.6% from 2015.

Total revenue (100 million Korean won):

  • 2009 547
  • 2010 1,032
  • 2011 1,809
  • 2012 2,673
  • 2013 3,934
  • 2014 5,569
  • 2015 6,694
  • 2016 8,606

Data compiled by the Ministry of Health and Welfare claims that foreigners spent around 270 billion won ($235 million) in South Korea on plastic surgeries and dermatology treatments last year.

Most of these foreigners tended to combine their medical treatment with tourism, with 62.5 percent answering they have done so or plan to in the future in a survey conducted by Yonhap.

Medical tourists from China

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 4,725
  • 2010 12,789
  • 2011 19,222
  • 2012 32,503
  • 2013 56,075
  • 2014 79,481
  • 2015 99,059
  • 2016 127,648

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV broadcasted a report exposing overcharging by Korean hospitals, and the Beijing News ran several articles showing the side effects customers suffered from conveyor-belt practices. The Chinese media has been full of stories of cosmetic surgery performed by unqualified doctors in Korea.

Medical tourists from USA

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 13.976
  • 2010 21,338
  • 2011 27,529
  • 2012 30,582
  • 2013 32,750
  • 2014 35,491
  • 2015 40,986
  • 2016 48,788

The large US number is not just medical tourists as it is mostly US expatriates, travellers, and US military at local bases.

Medical tourists from Russia

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 1,758
  • 2010 5,098
  • 2011 9,651
  • 2012 16,438
  • 2013 24,028
  • 2014 31,829
  • 2015 20,856
  • 2016 25,533

After 2014 the number of Russians has dropped to a small number due to the suggestions from Putin that tourists stay at home, and the ban on state or military employees going overseas for treatment. Where confusion arises is what Koreans define as Russians include the old USSR states where no travel bans exist.

According to the Ministry of Health, Russian patients visiting Korean medical institutions in 2015 mostly went to Busan.

Medical tourists from Japan

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 12.997
  • 2010 11,035
  • 2011 22,499
  • 2012 19,744
  • 2013 16,849
  • 2014 14,336
  • 2015 18,884
  • 2016 26,702

Medical tourists from Kazakhstan

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 128
  • 2010 346
  • 2011 702
  • 2012 1,633
  • 2013 2,890
  • 2014 8,029
  • 2015 12,567
  • 2016 15.01

Medical tourists from Mongolia

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 850
  • 2010 1,860
  • 2011 3,266
  • 2012 8,407
  • 2013 12,034
  • 2014 12,803
  • 2015 12,582
  • 2016 14,798

Medical tourists from Vietnam

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 327
  • 2010 921
  • 2011 1336
  • 2012 2231
  • 2013 2988
  • 2014 3728
  • 2015 5316
  • 2016 8746

Medical tourists from Canada

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 984
  • 2010 1,714
  • 2011 2,051
  • 2012 2,756
  • 2013 2,770
  • 2014 2,943
  • 2015 3,206
  • 2016 4,123

Medical tourists from UAE

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 17
  • 2010 54
  • 2011 158
  • 2012 342
  • 2013 1,151
  • 2014 2,633
  • 2015 2,946
  • 2016 3,562

There were over 7,200 patients from Middle Eastern countries including 700 United Arab Emirates nationals on a government programme.

Most UAE patients sought treatment for serious and complex medical conditions or illnesses such as cancer or stroke, or to undergo transplant.

Medical tourists from the Philippines

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 356
  • 2010 957
  • 2011 1,178
  • 2012 1,787
  • 2013 1,848
  • 2014 2,024
  • 2015 2,410
  • 2016 3,686

Medical tourists from Uzbekistan

Number of medical tourists:

  • 2009 113
  • 2010 298
  • 2011 491
  • 2012 824
  • 2013 1,358
  • 2014 1,904
  • 2015 2,634
  • 2016 4,101

2015 data

Conflicting figures are coming from local authorities where there are high numbers of cosmetic surgery clinics. Seoul reports numbers in Gangnam plastic surgery clinics down from 36,000 in 2014 to 12,000 in 2015.

According to the Ministry of Health data, the biggest source of inbound medical tourists for 2015 was China (33%), followed by the USA (14%), Russia (7%), Japan (6%), Kazakhstan (4%), Mongolia (4%), Vietnam (2%), Canada, UAE, Uzbekistan, and Philippines (all 1%). 24% of Chinese patients sought cosmetic surgery. 28% of Russians and 23% of those from the USA had hospital treatment. The large US number is only a few medical tourists and mostly US expatriates, travellers, and US military at local bases. Russian patients have been considered as important customers in the Korean medical tourism industry. Russian patients visiting Korean medical institutions in 2015 were 7% of the total, around 4,000 patients, almost all going to Busan.

Chinese customer numbers fell due to decreased satisfaction with results, public problems on illegal brokers, charging higher prices for foreigners than locals, illegal clinics, use of unqualified all aggravated by the economic problems in China.

Figures from the 10 most popular cosmetic hospitals among Chinese visitors in early 2015 shows a 20% drop from 13,500 customers in 2014 to 10,000 in 2015.

Government data for 2015 states that patients spent $566.7 million in 2015, an increase of 20.2% on 2014. 271 patients spent more than 100 million won ($90,700) on their treatment, compared to 210 in 2014.

South Korea increased promotion for medical tourism across South-east Asia. The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) is particularly stepping up marketing to the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

2014 data

The Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) reported that foreign patients rose to 250,000 in 2014, 40,000 more in 2013. The Ministry of Health and Welfare makes many claims and they often amend or update earlier figures, causing confusion.

Total revenue from medical tourism in South Korea reached $349 million in 2014, down 6.5% from $379 million the previous year, according to the Bank of Korea. This was the first decline in medical tourism revenue since the Bank of Korea began keeping records in 2006.

  • 2006     $59 million
  • 2008     $70 million
  • 2010     $90 million
  • 2012     $202 million
  • 2013     $373 million
  • 2014     $349 million

Chinese patients tend to visit cosmetic surgeons and dermatologists while Russians have health check-ups and get treated by gynaecologists and dermatologists. Patients from the United Arab Emirates spent the most per person on average at 17.71 million won ($16,000), followed by an average of 4.56 million won ($4,100), paid by patients from Kazakhstan. The number of patients from the Middle East rose 237% to 1151. 350 were sent to Korea by the Dubai government under an agreement between the two countries. Korea aims to get up to 1,000 from Dubai via the government this year, having already treated about 290 between January and April.

The Chinese cosmetic surgery tourism boom in Korea has reached its peak. The number of Chinese cosmetic patients was 79,000 in 2014. The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported that of the 36,224 foreigners who had cosmetic surgery in Korea in 2014, 20,480 or 56.5 % chose clinics in Gangnam.

 With the increased inflow of Chinese patients, came in increase in complaints. The numbers of failed operations and disputes between customers and South Korean clinics, some of them not operating legally, rose by 15% in 2014 compared to 2013.

Attracted by supposedly safer conditions and better treatment, Chinese medical tourists often pay more than they would at home to receive cosmetic treatment in South Korea. South Korea has 100,000 cosmetic surgeons, but commentators have suggested that only 2,000 actually have the relevant qualifications to administer treatment.

The growing number of complaints and increased patient protests led the Korean embassy in China to warn that diplomatic relations may suffer due to the damage they cause to South Korea's public image.

According to the Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics (CAPA) in 2014 56,000 Chinese had cosmetic surgery in South Korea, but too many had work that was less than satisfactory.

2014 saw a head of state go to South Korea for medical treatment. Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan had rejuvenation treatment at Chaum Centre in Gangnam. Chaum has drawn many rich people from around the world who go to Seoul in their private jets. Among them have been Chinese and Canadian business tycoons, the prime minister of Kazakhstan and Saudi and UAE royalty.

SNUH is a public hospital but is taking a major role in the government’s plan to privatize medical services, by pushing for medical tourism projects and launching a for-profit subsidiary. 

In 2012 it launched a commercial subsidiary, HealthConnect, as a joint venture with SK. 

The venture aims to provide healthcare services based on information technology, was criticized for being illegal. No public hospital was allowed to run commercial businesses back in 2012, according to the nation’s Medical Act. 

The hospital and the Health Ministry have been arguing that the subsidiary was launched based on the Establishment of the SNUH Act, a special law that is independent from the Medical Act. 

Inspectors from the National Assembly recently concluded that the SNUH is categorized as a public institution and it was illegal for the hospital to establish the for-profit business.

Thus, the government brought in new law in 2014 that public and private hospitals and clinics are allowed to open meditels - hotels for foreign medical tourists, within the hospital. They can also run facilities such as fitness centres.

2013 data

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2014, revenue that Seoul hospitals and clinics earned from treating foreign patients has risen sevenfold over the past four years. Seoul is the cornerstone of Korea's medical tourism with $260 million on treatment in 2013.

It was reported that Chinese patients were the biggest foreign spenders in 2013 as they accounted for 26.5% of the total number of foreign patients, and spent a combined 1.02 trillion won ($928 million) in 2013. The number of Russian patients increased 46.2% to about 24,000, replacing the Japanese as the third-largest group after the USA. Russian patients spent more than Americans at 87.9 billion won ($80 million). The US figures includes a large number of expatriates, travellers and US military. Korean hospitals and clinics estimate that each patient spent 1.86 million won ($1,700) on average in 2013, up 10.7% from 2012.

Top average spend was by people from the United Arab Emirates, with Kazakhstan second. The UAE spend was a 370% increase from 2013.

Russia accounts for around 21% of foreign patients with a serious illness visiting Korea, following the United Arab Emirates (26.%) and Kazakhstan (22.9%). Russian patients are different from Chinese patients who visit Korea for plastic surgery, in that they represent the largest share of foreign patients who visit Korea for fertility treatments (20.6%). They also spend a lot for the treatment for serious illnesses. A Russian patient spends an average of 3.66 million won ($3,300), more than a patient from the United Arab Emirates at 17.71 million won ($16,000), and Kazakhstan at 4.56 million won ($4,100).

South Korea saw a surplus in its health tourism account of more than US$100 million, largely thanks to increased spending by overseas travellers seeking healthcare and medical services in the country. Bank of Korea claimed that the country's income from medical tourism reached $187 million in the first 11 months of 2013, up 35.3 % from $138 million a year earlier, marking the biggest tally since the central bank began to keep related data in 2006.

2012 data

The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed an agreement in 2012. Saudi patients are going to foreign countries for organ transplants, cancer treatments, organ transplant and chronic disease care such as diabetes – and Korea wants this market.

2009 data

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2015, the numbers in 2009 were 40,100 foreign patients came for surgery, 21,364 for cosmetic surgery. Third was dermatology with 19,949 patients.

Medical tourism promotion and investment

Korea is very active and there is dedicated website Visit Medical Korea. There are several medical tourism packages on offer. The site offers information on the Seoul's top 50 hospitals for cosmetic surgery, medical screening and other services in English, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Visitors to the website can have online chats with experts to talk over the various services, fees or any concerns they might have.

There are three manned help desks in various parts of Seoul.

New initiatives to promote South Korean medical tourism are part of the campaign to rebuilt trust in the true cost and safety of cosmetic surgery in South Korea. Most cosmetic surgery customers are from China, where the media has been exposing over charging and unsafe practices in Korea.

The Visit Medical Korea portal offers services in five foreign languages and includes information on obtaining insurance ahead of a procedure, the treatment process, medical dispute mediation and compensation for damages.

Medical tourism promotion plans

Korea accepts it has to do more to help customers when they get there. In a survey of 200 local clinics, interpretation services were needed in many to attract foreign patients, as was counselling support on visa issues.

The South Korean government has a new July 2016 plan for the promotion of the seven service industry sectors including medical tourism. According to the plan, telemedicine services are to be allowed in regions with a limited access to medical services such as islands while medical and health information of public agencies are opened to the public for the creation of new industries. Exactly how this will help real medical tourism is still unclear.

The Korea International Medical Association has signed an agreement with China's largest portal Baidu to attract more Chinese medical tourists to South Korea.

The portal has a new section introducing South Korean hospitals and clinics for treatment of 20 major medical problems. The system will allow Korean hospitals and clinics to introduce staff, provide customer counselling and hold various events through the portal without having to travel to China or employ a broker.

The association will begin by promoting 20 to 30 hospitals and clinics on Baidu in the first phase before reviewing whether to increase the number of based on results such as patient traffic.

A key reason for the deal is to cut out of the equation illegal Chinese and Korean brokers who offer treatment at exorbitant cost and can even steal all the money paid.

Baidu is a Chinese web services company based in Beijing and offers many services, including a huge Chinese search engine that is the local equivalent of Google, even to producing its own driverless cars. Although private, it supports and works with the national government
It has 657 million monthly mobile users and annual revenue of $10.25 billion. Connecting healthcare users with healthcare companies is an increasing part of its global business.  It has global websites in many languages.

A new plan to encourage more medical tourists to seek treatment in Korea includes offering multi-lingual support to patients involved in medical disputes and those needing general consultations. The government hopes the proposal will increase foreign patients’ satisfaction with medical services.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare’s plan aspires to attract 300,000 foreign patients to the country by increasing transparency in Korea’s medical services industry and reinvigorating a recently slumping medical market for foreign patients.

The plan responds to criticism that the measures and mechanisms to help foreign patients involved in medical disputes in the country are inadequate, as well as the argument that information on treatments and procedures are generally difficult to access. The plan is to have a website that provides consultation and support for foreign patients regarding any difficulties they may face in Korea, such as compensation in the case of a medical accident or disputes over treatment fees.

The website will also offer information on buying insurance, providing medical information during the treatment process, mediating disputes on malpractice and over charging, plus supporting foreign patients in legal actions.

To boost medical tourism, the ministry will support the development of medical check-up products for foreign tourists.

Medical tourism financial incentives and grants

Foreigners who have cosmetic surgery or cosmetic treatment in South Korea will receive a value added tax refund. The tax rebate will be given at booths in the country's international airports when foreign patients submit a certificate issued by authorised medical institutions or dermatology clinics.

Cosmetic operations and services including liposuction, nasal surgery and eyelid surgery undertaken between April 1 2016 and March 31 2017 are subject to the tax refund. The plan is to boost South Korea's medical tourism sector.

A new law gives financial aid to medical tourism agencies and hospitals expanding overseas. The Act on Overseas Medical Expansion and Foreign Patient Attraction Support has the dual aim of allowing 160 Korean hospitals and clinics to go abroad and promotion to attract 500,000 foreign patients a year to Korea by 2017.Hospitals wanting to set up branches overseas can benefit from financial and tax, as can medical tourism agencies attracting foreign patients.

The national government of South Korea will aid eight local governments to attract foreign medical patients with more advanced technologies.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare plans to provide financial support of one billion won- US$ 870,000 - to the cities of Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon and provinces of South Jeolla, North Gyeognsang, North Chungcheong and Jeju.

The eight local governments will each receive 100 million to 150 million won.

Central government plans to work more closely with local governments, stressing the importance of each provincial and city government’s efforts to develop and promote medical technologies that appeal to foreigners.

Promotional bodies - national

Korea International Medical Association

The Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion was set up by Korea Tourism Organization, Korea Health Industry Development Institute and Korea Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2007, to promote South Korea as the next medical travel destination. In March 2010 it changed its name to Korea International Medical Association.

Korea International Medical Association (KIMA) is a government-private joint initiative. It is the official organization for Korea medical tourism and supported by the Korean government. The primary purposes of KIMA include promoting Korea healthcare to the international communities and fostering safe and reliable infrastructures to secure transparency of quality of care and patients’ safety.

35 hospitals and specialty clinics are actively involved as member providers with a couple of government affiliated organizations, Korea Health Industry Development Institute and Korea Tourism Organization. Korea Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affaires is supporting activities of KIMA. Projects include promotion activities, infrastructure expansion activities and environmental improvement activities.

Promotional bodies - regional

Incheon Medical Tourism Foundation

The Incheon Medical Tourism Foundation (IMTF) was founded in 2011 with the ambition of making Incheon Northeast Asia’s top medical tourism city. It has been accredited by the Ministry of Health and Welfare as an approved regional medical tourism association. But by 2016 the website had gone.

Medical tourism regulation

All medical facilities that treat foreign patients and those who introduce foreign patients to a medical service provider must be registered with the health ministry. Violations are subject to a maximum three years in jail or a substantial fine. But in practice few if any clinics are prosecuted, and the risks are low compared to the potential reward.

South Korean hospitals are not allowed to have foreign patients exceed 5 % of their capacity, and medical specialists with foreign licenses have limited leeway in working for local institutions.

The Health Ministry’s decision to allow hospitals to set up for-profit subsidiaries in an effort to promote medical tourism has had strong opposition from medical unions.

Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to crack down on clinics that overcharge and will strengthen interpretation services.

Anyone caught acting as or for an unlicensed medical brokers for clinics or hospitals could face a prison term of up to three years, or a fine of up to 10 million won ($8800). The measures are aimed at gaining public trust in the industry here following a number of fraud cases involving overcharging and illegal brokers.

Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has charged Illegal brokers with taking large commissions from Chinese medical tourists seeking cosmetic surgery.

Nine brokers, including two Chinese and seven Koreans, arranged cosmetic surgery for 64 Chinese tourists at two clinics in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, from April 2014 to May 2015. The brokers did not have a license to practice medical brokerage. Police are seeking four other Chinese brokers on the same charge.

Along with the arrangement, the brokers took about 100 million won ($87,000) as commissions, almost half the cost of the surgery.

Under medical law, those who want to be a broker have to meet several conditions, including having surety insurance and capital of at least 100 million won.

The government has told the police to crack down on illegal brokers because they badly damage medical tourism.

Outbound medical tourism

Many thousands of medical tourists are believed to leave South Korea for treatment annually. The destination of these medical tourists tends to be in the USA and Asia, travelling to take advantage of lower prices elsewhere.

2013 data

According to the Bank of Korea local residents' overseas spending on medical travel amounted to $86.4 million during 2013, down 11.2 % from a year earlier.

2007-2012 data

South Korean residents' overseas expenditures on health-related services reached a peak in 2007 at $137 million and then fell to $96 million in 2009 before rebounding to $109 million in 2010. They spent $78.5 million and $105 million, respectively, in 2011 and 2012.

Medical tourism research reports

Lydia Gan
Analysis of medical tourism in India and South Korea
2012   

Medical tourism is a fast growing trend in Asia, and both India and South Korea have been among the frontrunners in this industry. Several factors come into play when a country is contemplating engaging in medical tourism as part of its strategy for economic growth. Government support and other areas such as infrastructure, competence of medical staff, the entrepreneurial drive of the middlemen facilitating the process, and the general reputation and political stability of the host country are among key influencing factors. This paper conducts a comparative SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat) analysis in India and South Korea with the objective of understanding the various factors that can help or impede the growth of the medical tourism in both nations.

  • International accreditation is a vital factor when evaluating the quality of care in medical facilities for medical tourists.
  • Affiliation with respected hospitals in Europe or the US makes medical tourists more comfortable with the quality of care in affiliated hospitals.
  • In Asia there is little or no medical accountability for negligence.
  • Hospitals benefit from strategic partnerships with hotels and airlines.
  • Growing prosperity within Asian countries mean that Asian countries can benefit more by targeting these countries, than American or European trade.
  • Should medical tourism and related foreign exchange revenues be used to benefit under-resourced local health systems, and if not, why not?
  • Medical tourism can help stop doctors going overseas, but may also move them from public to private hospitals, so damaging the public sector.
  • There is strong government support with many initiatives to promote medical tourism.
  • The government is planning legal changes to deal with some problems below.
  • South Korea benefits from established trade links with Japan and China.
  • English language skills have helped drive medical tourism.
  • Being one of 4 Asian Tiger industrialized countries helps attract people.
  • Medical law falls short in failing to protect foreign customers.
  • There is discriminatory pricing against foreign customers.
  • A common problem is the inconsistency of cost charging during procedures, which can be higher than quoted prices.
  • Cosmetic surgery is expensive compared to other procedures.
  • Success is due to targeting prosperous Chinese and Japanese customers.
  • The future development of Jeju Island as a medical tourism destination will make it easier and quicker for Chinese and Japanese customers to fly for treatment. 

The paper looks at risk areas that are often overlooked-

  • The lack of follow up care is critical to the continued health of a medical tourist.
  • Follow up care must be arranged in home countries.
  • Travel risk includes infection and exposure to diseases.
  • International flights can expose patients to new germs and bacteria that may increase the risk of infection during operations.
  • Local epidemics such as swine flu and SARS must not be ignored, as these risks could bring medical tourism to a halt in affected countries.

As competition increases, the lack of investment and marketing by governments and poor product or service differentiation by government and business, may mean countries that are successful medical tourism destinations now, will be overtaken by those with supportive government policies, a better infrastructure, plus differentiated service and care, with a co-coordinated marketing strategy.

The market is not big enough or expanding fast enough for all those countries wanting to grow or develop medical tourism to succeed. Only those with improved infrastructure, solid long-term strategies, and innovative offerings will maintain sustained growth. Some countries will fail, and although the paper avoids naming which ones are most vulnerable, their analysis suggests India is already struggling.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Assessment of medical tourism development in Korea for the achievement of competitive advantage
2014

To maximize the potential of medical tourism, Korea needs to maximize its strengths, utilize its opportunities, overcome its weaknesses and prepare for threats.

Strengths

  • High quality medical staff.
  • Offers advanced medical services with the latest technology.
  • Specialist services include cancer surgery, cardiovascular care, robotic surgery, stem cell treatments, ophthalmology, fertility treatment and cosmetic surgery.
  • Strong support from the Korean government.

Weaknesses

  • Lack of promotion
  • Not publicizing the outcomes of empirical medical research.
  • Government agencies and institutions not centralized, with each local government having to develop its own laws and implement its own policies
  • Disjointedness reduces the effectiveness of cooperative marketing ventures.
  • Not enough medical professionals in medical tourism.
  • Lack of supporting legal systems for medical visa issuance, medical disputes, insurance, or indemnification, with low levels of legal liability in comparison to Thailand and India.

Opportunities

  • Can develop marketing strategies that differentiate it from Asian competitors
  • More patient-oriented services could be introduced, offering one-stop services. Medical institutions should also take advantage of the "cutting-edge IT offerings" that give them an advantage over counterparts in countries such as India, Singapore and Thailand.
  • Need to appoint medical professionals in medical tourism who are multilingual, understand other cultural backgrounds, and are competent in both medicine and tourism.
  • Growing global demand.
  • Korean government can provide strong support with strategies to attract more foreign patients.
  • The Korean government could monitor the price of medical services and maintain a transparent pricing system.

Threats

  • Strong competition from existing Asian competitors such as Thailand and Malaysia.
  • New competition from Asian countries such as Taiwan attracting Chinese patients from the Mainland and overseas. 
  • The number of visitors from the Middle East is expected to decrease as the quality of medical services in countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia improve.
  • The anti-Korean cultural movement among Japanese far-right groups has discouraged Japanese from visiting Korea for medical treatment.
  • The critical press in China may put off visitors from the Mainland.
  • The cost of medical treatment in Korea is internationally competitive but above Thailand and India, mainly due to higher labour costs.

Korea Consumer Agency
Cosmetic surgery
2014

A government survey on cosmetic surgery, found that one in three patients was unhappy and a substantial minority had negative side effects. It surveyed 1,000 patients and 32.3% expressed dissatisfaction, while 17% had at least one negative side effect.

The survey came about after the number of customer complaints it received, escalated. Common complaints include scars, infections and asymmetrical facial features–such as ending up with a mouth that curves up on one side and down on the other.

Most of the patients are treated in Seoul, and the KCA has already had over 5,000 complaints in 2014, a rise on 2013 and a substantial increase on 2012.

In South Korea, doctors gain an area of specialization after a year 's internship and four years of residency. However, general physicians, or those who specialize in another field, may also practice cosmetic surgery, which can confuse patients. The KCA poll found 63% said they didn’t know how to distinguish between specialized and non-specialized plastic surgeons.

Specialist surgeons blame many of the problems and complaints on the rising number of non-specialized cosmetic surgeons that the specialist’s estimates outnumber them by up to 10 to one.

Legally, non-specialists are supposed to show this, although the rules just specify that a clinic whose doctors are not specialists in the area they practice must add a note to its clinic’s name—some use a small font to make it hard to see.

Other problems revealed in the KCA poll are on adverts and risk warnings. One in four customers said that they had no real warning of the potential risks. Others reported that they replied to adverts that were an exaggeration of the reality.

Korea Tourism Organisation
Korea Medical Tourism Bibliography
2013

The number of medical tourists visiting the nation is expected to reach almost 1 million in 2020.

This will reach 598,000 in 2015 and 998,000 in 2020.

Revenue from medical tourism is expected to jump to 3.5 trillion won in 2020 from 1.01 trillion won in 2013.

The KTO expects the amount of average per capita spending in Korea by medical tourists to grow from 2.53 million won in 2013 to 3.56 million won in 2020.

Further growth of medical tourism will create 60,000 more health related jobs by 2020.

KTO expects the report to contribute to disseminating more information about medical tourism and help hospitals and related companies develop a competitive edge.

Since the country launched a promotional campaign to nurture medical tourism in 2009, the number of people visiting Korea for treatment has increased by 38.4 % annually.

The number of hospitals and other medical institutions involved in the industry grew to 3,800 in 2013.

In 2012 159,000 people from 188 countries visited Korea for medical treatment.

NOTE:  If it was 159,000 in 2012 and a 40% increase in 2013 then this gives 223,000 - not 390,000!

Inbound Medical Tourism

China outbound medical tourism

05 December, 2018

COTRI H1 report identifies destination winners and losers

Source: Read the IMTJ press release

Korea 3rd favourite

05 December, 2018

Korean survey of medical tourists ranks destinations

Source: Read the IMTJ press release

Korean inbound cosmetic tourism

25 October, 2018

48, 849 visited Korea for cosmetic surgery

Source: Read the IMTJ press release

Korean inbound medical tourism

17 October, 2018

According to Seoul City, of the medical tourists who visited Seoul in 2017, Mongolians accounted for the fifth-highest number. 9,600 Mongolians visited Seoul as medical tourists in 2017.

Source: Read the IMTJ news item

Mongolia outbound medical tourism

21 September, 2018

According to the Korea Herald, Seoul City claims that 9,600 Mongolians visited Seoul in 2017 to receive medical services. Mongolians accounted for the fifth-highest number of medical tourists to the city.

Source: Read the IMTJ news item
view all

Outbound Medical Tourism

Medical tourism - the Philippines claim to fame!

30 November, 2017

Medical tourism in the Philippines cares for approximately 80,000 to 250,000 patients or clients annually. A vast number of these clients come from China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Source: Business Mirror

Russia - medical tourism flows

15 November, 2017

2017 will see 20,000 people medical tourists in Russia. 60% of all general medical services for foreigners are in Moscow. The main sources are China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and India.

Source: Read the IMTJ news item

South Korea medical tourism: Inbound revenue exceeds outbound in 2011

09 February, 2012

Medical tourist spent $115.6 million in Korea in 2011, however Koreans spent $109.1 on overseas treatment.

Source: Read the IMTJ news item

Developments in Philippine medical tourism

18 February, 2011

The Philippines Department of Tourism estimates that 100,000 medical tourists arrived in the country in 2009.

Source: Read the IMTJ news item

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