2010 was a good year for South Korean medical tourism


The number of foreign patients who visited Korean hospitals for medical treatment was a record 81,789 in 2010, up 36 % from the previous year, says the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Total revenue from treatment on foreign patients nearly doubled. (Note: These are not exclusively medical tourists - see below on how foreign patients are defined.)

The number of foreign patients has been on a sharp increase, with the government actively promoting medical tourism. It recorded 7,901 in 2007, 27,480 in 2008 and 60,201 in 2009.

The 2010 number for foreign patients was calculated based on data submitted by 1,686 hospitals and clinics nationwide. Yonsei University Severance Hospital attracted the largest number of foreign patients, followed by Samsung Medical Center, CheongShim International Medical Center, and Asan Medical Center.

The numbers do not equate to actual medical tourist numbers as they include all foreigners who are non-Koreans who receive no benefits from medical insurance. This includes American soldiers based in the country, plus holiday and business travellers and expatriates treated in the country. The total number is an exaggeration as even the ministry admits that they have assumed all non-nationals visited Korea for medical purposes and did not adjust the numbers for other categories such as general tourists, who fall ill during their trip. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the total of 60,201 foreign patients in 2009 included 4,576 American soldiers based in the country.

The analysis of data on foreign patients shows the number of outpatients was 64,777, accounting for 79.2 percent of all foreign patients, and 11,653, or 14.2 %, came to receive medical checkups. The number of inpatients recorded was 5,359 which may reflect a small number of patients who travel to Korea for elective surgery requiring a hospital stay.

In 2010 female patients outnumbered male patients, being 57.2 %. Female patients from Japan and China accounted for 79 % and 71 % respectively of the total, strongly suggesting that the main areas are cosmetic treatment and cosmetic surgery undertaken on an outpatient basis. By nationality, patients were in order from the U.S. China, Japan, and Russia. The number of Japanese patients dropped slightly from the previous year, coinciding with the overall decrease of Japanese tourists. The US figures include soldiers, holidaymakers, resident expatriates, business travellers and diplomats.

14% received skincare-related treatment and cosmetic surgery while 13.5 % received internal medical treatment. Another 13.1 % visited total medical checkup centres. 43 % went to local medical centres while 20.5 % visited general hospitals and another 23.5 % chose to go to clinics.

In a recent seminar, Lee Chul of Yonsei University Medical Center said that more than 2,000 medical facilities in Korea are capable of attracting foreign patients; the US, China, Japan and Russia are primary targets; with the Seoul metropolitan region as the main destination. But he also identified problems, including fierce competition with too many places across Korea seeing medical tourism as a growth industry, even though many hospitals have not set up the medical care infrastructures expected by foreigners. He sees communication skills as a primary concern, with a lack of foreign language capability among most healthcare providers. He pointed out that Korea’s national health care system permits doctors an average of 3 minutes per patient, which is efficient but lacking in physician-patient interaction; that is a totally unacceptable practice in dealing with foreign patients who are paying with an expectation of service, and few places accept foreign credit cards.

Critics of the local medical tourism industry point out that there is no centralized governance of this industry and minimal regulatory support, so there is a lack of standardization. Under current national law, hospitals may only allot a maximum 5 % of the total bed capacity to non-citizens. The law also forbids domestic hospitals from operating on a for-profit basis, though this is currently under review.



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