Posted on Jun 30, 2011 by Sergio Ulloa
Foreign patients who are being treated at South Korean healthcare facilities will soon be able to receive guaranteed compensation from the government in the event of medical malpractice. Korean hospitals will also be allowed to sell pharmaceuticals directly to foreign patients, circumventing the previous referral process, and outside medical staff visiting South Korea for training purposes will become eligible to participate in clinical procedures and research. These are all part of the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare's updated medical tourism guidelines, announced earlier this month.
Since 2009, the Korean government was embarked on an aggressive marketing strategy to promote medical tourism overseas as a new reason for international travelers to come to South Korea. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 81,789 tourists came to the country for medical reasons in 2010, with cosmetic procedures proving particularly popular. This represents a 36 percent increase on the previous year's totals with total revenue from treatment on foreign patients nearly doubling as well. The Ministry recorded 7,901 foreign patients in 2007, 27,480 in 2008 and up to 60,201 in 2009.
Despite this continued growth, South Korea lags behind many of its Asia Pacific neighbors in the medical tourism field. Thailand, Singapore and India, for example, managed last year to attract 1.5 million, 720,000 and 730,000 foreign patients respectively. Although the Korean Medical Association claims the country can offer a high level quality of medical service at comparable prices to its continental rivals, the global awareness and brand image of Korean healthcare facilities remains low. Critics within the country's medical tourism sector, point out that there has been no unified governance over this important industry and little regulatory support. This has led to a lack of standardization and little control over health outcomes for foreigners. Current national law has also been overtly restrictive, rationing a maximum 5 percent of total bed capacity to non-citizens and previously preventing domestic hospitals from operating on a for-profit basis.
By 2015, the South Korean government wants the total number of foreign patients receiving treatment in the country to surpass 300,000 annually. To do this they have initiated broad-based medical tourism reforms that aim to cut the red tape, becoming more foreigner-friendly, and all while guaranteeing patients' rights.
Starting in 2012, foreign patients will be eligible to seek compensation if they become victims of medical malpractice in South Korea. At present, there are no proper compensation standards or systems set up for non-resident malpractice victims. Korean hospitals and clinics have been reluctant in the past to pay higher subscription rates for insurance and this had been a source of tension driving away potential foreign business. To implement these new initiatives, the government plan to establish a mutual aid association, comprised of participating Korean hospitals and clinics, which will collect a surcharge on the fees these medical facilities charge foreign patients. The association will then use the pooled funds to compensate foreign patients when claims arise. The Ministry of Health will head the heretofore unnamed association on a temporary basis until the full compensation and legal mechanisms for the body are completed.
Through this new united national body, the government hopes to further encourage the private healthcare sector to invest more in attracting overseas clients, and plans to support them further through necessary immigration policy adjustments. The Korean state agencies eventually plan to relax visa rules, enabling prospective foreign patients to skip complicated administrative procedures and gain entry to the country more easily. The multifaceted pharmaceutical system will also be streamlined for overseas clients. Foreign patients will be able and encouraged to purchase their medications directly through their hospital or clinic, without having to refer their prescriptions to a pharmacy instead.
Regulations involving the future construction of accommodation facilities at hospitals will also be amended to encourage development. While many Korean healthcare professionals recognize medical tourism as a vital growth industry, many hospitals in the country have not set up the medical care infrastructures expected by foreigners, and this needs to addressed quickly. Foreign healthcare professionals, staff and consultants, will also be allowed to treat patients and participate in research.
Other plans to keep improving the quality of medical tourism services available in South Korea involve broadening the country's communications services. Compared to other international medical markets, the lack of foreign language capability among many Korean healthcare providers remains a primary concern. The government announced plans to tackle this problem by increasing training for medical translators and through expanding the services of the national health call center. In addition, foreign patients will be encouraged to interact and give feedback through a comprehensive annual survey that will aim to identify systemic problems within the Korean healthcare system earlier. The introduction of an easy-to-follow star ratings system for domestic clinics and hospitals, is also being discussed.
The forecast for the Asian medical tourism industry
is bright, with an estimated total value of US$100 billion projected annually by 2012. The substantial development of the global economy coupled with the falling costs of travel and communication has enabled world class healthcare practices to establish themselves all around the world. International clients seeking alternative healthcare solutions to what is available in their home countries at competitive prices now are presented with many opportunities. If South Korea wants to become a major player in this lucrative industry these reforms represent a decent start.