South Korea medical tourism hampered by regulation


The number of foreign tourists visiting South Korea for medical treatment is increasing but held back by government regulations on local hospitals, claims the Hyundai Research Institute (HRI).

HRI says the country's weak performance on medical tourism sector is mainly attributable to excessive regulations on local hospitals. South Korean hospitals are not allowed to have foreign patients exceeding 5% of their capacity, and medical specialists with foreign licenses have limited leeway in working for local institutions.

HRI wants government to ease regulations on hospitals by allowing non-medical firms to invest in medical institutions and abolish ceilings on the percentage of foreign inpatients.

Although the Korea National Tourism Organization, says that the number of foreign health tourists to South Korea was 150,000 in 2012, compared to 122,297 in 2011, the figures have problems.

The 2012 figures are estimates rather than national figures and are actually of international patients rather than just medical tourists. They include all foreigners who are non-Koreans who receive no benefits from local medical insurance. This includes American soldiers and diplomats based in the country, plus holiday and business travellers and expatriates treated in the country. In the past the ministry has had to admit that it assumed all non-nationals who had treatment locally and were not covered by Korean insurance, visited Korea for medical purposes, so it did not reduce for other categories such as general tourists, who fall ill. As the country gets nearly 10 million tourists a year, this spinning of the figures could be quite important.

The country accepts that it is unlikely to get many American or European medical tourists and that there is now fierce competition for those from Russia, China, Mongolia and Japan.

So it is targeting nearby poor countries. A dozen Cambodian visitors including journalists, travel agents, and a public health official recently went to Korea to look around major hospitals in southern Seoul. The four-day visit was on the invitation of Gangnam District Office. Other countries being targeted include Vietnam, Ukraine, Myanmar and Kazakhstan. Central government and regional governments as small as districts are promoting medical services in Korea

South Korea has a problem as most Cambodians go to Singapore or Thailand for medical treatment because of proximity and easier entry to these countries. They can go to Thailand or Singapore at any time without a visa.

Busan, Korea’s second largest city, hosted medical professionals, travel agents, and journalists from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Other cities and provinces such as Daegu, Daejeon, and Jeju have been promoting themselves as medical tourism destinations. KTO is trying to promote Korea as a medical tourism destination to the Middle East, but that is a very competitive market

With the most developed medical infrastructure in the country, Seoul is by far the main destination for foreign medical tourists. The capital city took in 77,858 patients in 2011 and Gyeonggi-do attracted 17,092. Next is Busan (6,704), followed by Daegu (5,494), Incheon (4,004) and Jeollabuk-do (North Jeolla Province, 2,104).

The fields of medicine sought by overseas visitors in 2011 are internal medicine (15.3%), dermatology and cosmetic surgery (12.7%), family medicine (8.7%), physical examinations (8.3%), gynaecology (7.7%), and Oriental medicine (5.9%). The proportion of physical examinations, dermatology, and cosmetic surgery is on the decline while internal medicine and oriental medicine have been increasing.



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