Growing pains of Korean medical tourism


Korea hopes to attract more than 200,000 medical tourists by 2013. Early signs are good, but problems are emerging that have to be solved to achieve that target.
According to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs the number of foreigners visiting Korea for medical treatment jumped 32.1 percent to 9,075 in the first quarter of this year, up from 6,872 a year ago. 1,061 foreigners visited Korean hospitals in May, up from 751 last year. The government expects medical tourism to boom after the medical law was revised on May 1 allowing hospitals to launch marketing campaigns or pay commission to agencies to bring in more patients from overseas.

Medical fees in Korea have been strictly controlled by the government and remain at a fraction of the prices in the United States.  But price controls do not apply to overseas patients. Initially, most hospitals charged the same to domestic and overseas patients. Most now or plan to, charge higher fees to overseas patients, as hospitals with an increasing number of medical tourists say it is inevitable for them to charge more to foreigners as it takes much more effort and time to handle non-Korean patients. According to the English Web site of the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion (CKMP), the overall price of medical services in Korea is 20 to 30 percent of that in the US. The latest statistics produced by CKMP suggest that Korea’s medical fees are 3 times lower than those of the US.A 2008 survey by the Tourism Ministry, reveals that American medical tourists do not feel fees in Korea are quite as cheap as KMOP has publicized. Those surveyed said they had an impression Korean medical services are only 20 to 30 percent less expensive than those in the US. They believed dental treatments are 30 percent cheaper, but cosmetic surgery is 30 percent more expensive. This suggests that tourists coming to Korea for cheap medical care may have problems as few hospitals are reluctant to give prices to patients or medical tourism agencies in advance. Most non-Korean websites of hospitals are long on explaining how good hospital is, but short on detail of what treatment is available and at what cost.

Lee Young-ho at CKMP says that the focus of promoting Korea’s medical market should be on advanced medical technology, not price,” We are seeing an increasing number of patients who come to Korea for high-quality treatment, instead of a cheaper alternative one. For Russians, the utmost importance is medical technology rather than the cost. I understand that if foreigners realize they have paid more, they will be disheartened. But what really matters is that foreign patients feel satisfied with our high quality medical service. It is not for the government to regulate the price. Hospitals have to make up for additional costs such as interpretation.”

Although top hospitals have people who are multi-lingual, in most there are few nurses and doctors that can speak the languages of foreign patients fluently, such as English, Russian, Japanese and Spanish.



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