Are Korea medical tourism numbers rising or falling?


There are confusing figures coming out of South Korea, particularly on cosmetic tourism numbers.

The health ministry claims 300,000 foreign nationals visited South Korea in 2015 for medical treatment, an 11 % increase on 2014.These are international patient numbers, not just medical tourists, and up to one in four international patients is not a medical tourist.

Patients spent $566.7 million in 2015, an increase of 20.2% on 2014. 271 patients spent more than 100 million won on their treatment, compared to 210 million won in 2014.

The biggest source was China, followed by the USA, Russia and Japan. 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 is mostly US expatriates, travellers, and US military personnel at local bases.

Conflicting figures come from local authorities with high numbers of cosmetic surgery clinics. Seoul reports numbers in Gangnam clinics down from 36,000 in 2014 to 12,000 in 2015, according to health ministry figures, with larger falls in 2016.

The problem is the number of unregulated clinics, many reports in China of customers being overcharged or getting poor treatment, and even one Chinese patient dying during cosmetic surgery. There are no regulations where checks are made on the standard of services, equipment and facilities at private clinics; or any checks that they use only regulated surgeons.

To attract more foreign patients, the health ministry plans to improve its language interpretation and tourism services specifically for foreign visitors seeking medical treatment there.

To attract more patients the government is giving back to visitors 10% of VAT, regulating commissions charged by brokers and promising to crack down on illegal brokers.

But it is not directly addressing  concerns over illegal clinics and surgeons. So far, the authorities have been reluctant to pursue or prosecute offenders.



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