South Korea eyes medical tourism boom

 

State-licensed clinics and hospitals are now allowed to directly seek foreign patients as part of South Korea's efforts to become Asia's new medical tourism hub.

Hospitals were barred from directly advertising for patients or accepting them through dedicated referral services.

Lee Young-ho, marketing director of the Global Healthcare Business Center, said: “We expect about US$221 million in revenue this year in this sector, which will grow fast amid our aggressive overseas marketing. We expect more than 40 local travel agencies and hundreds of hospitals and clinics to apply for state licenses”

The country expects 50, 000 foreigners will seek treatment in its healthcare facilities this year compared to 27,480 overseas-based patients who arrived in 2008. By 2013, the number of medical travellers to South Korea will reach about 200,000.

The Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion, a government-sponsored institution that promotes medical tourism in Korea, said it hopes to raise the number to 140,000 by 2012, but the health ministry expects that figure not to be reached until 2015.

On the other hand, critics argued there are still many obstacles to overcome. Questions remain about issues such as visa requirements and possible communication problems, most South Koreans are not fluent in English.

Forty-four major hospitals, including the “Big Four” — Seoul National University Hospital, Samsung Medical Center, Asan Medical Center and Yonsei Severance Hospital and some national and public hospitals will reserve 5 percent of their beds for foreigners. Asiana Airlines, Korea’s second-largest passenger carrier has a new agreement with Hanyang University Medical Center to support and promote medical tourism.

American citizens accounted for 34 percent of the country’s total overseas patients last year, but it hopes to attract more patients from Russia, Mongolia and China this year.

A group of Korean doctors, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, cosmetic surgeons and others recently visited Tokyo to promote the idea of Korea as a destination for Japanese seeking tummy tucks, corrective eye surgery and other medical procedures.

“If you come to Korea, dermatologists will provide treatment and medical counselling in Japanese. With advanced and safe dermatology laser treatments, you will become more beautiful while spending less money than you pay for the same treatment in Japan,” Ahn Gun-young, president of Gowoon Sesang Clinic, told around 30 Japanese tour agents during the visit.

Shinji Yamasaki, who runs Japan’s largest website for seniors, www.seniorcom.jp, said that 30 percent of the company’s members who are over 60 responded in a survey that they are interested in travelling overseas for medical reasons, particularly in getting cosmetic surgery.

He explained: “Since a large number of Japanese elderly are fond of Korean celebrities and as the price of Korean medical treatment is reasonable, Korean medical tourism has the competitive power to win Japanese customers.”

The Korea Tourism Organization has launched a trial tour for potential Chinese cosmetic surgery travellers with six Chinese travel agencies. From March to the end of this year, the package will offer Chinese travellers a five-day itinerary including massages, spa and special treatment programmes by dermatologists, along with a visit to popular destinations such as Jeju Island and Seoul. "Through these packages, we plan to make Korea a new destination for medical travel among the Chinese customers, and eventually expand it to the fields of dentistry, oriental medicine and health check-up," said Ahn Yong-hoon of the KTO`s Beijing office. The promotion is likely to remain limited as China currently bans promotion of medical services for serious illnesses.

Meanwhile, South Korea is now 30 percent cheaper to visit than it was in the same period last year, revealed Baeho Kim, regional director of the South Korean Tourism Organization in Kuwait when leading a team of medical tourism delegates from three well-known South Korean hospitals, the KonKuk University Medical Center, Wooridul (Spinal) Health Care and the Kyung Hee University (East-West Neo Medical Center).

“South Korea is now more affordable than ever because of the fluctuation of our currency. So I expect more Kuwaiti citizens to visit Korea this summer. South Korea has made it easier for Kuwaitis to visit the country as a visa is not required for Kuwaiti citizens.”

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