Posted on Feb 13, 2012 by Sergio Ulloa
The push to turn South Korea into Asia's premier medical tourism hub is beginning to deliver sizeable returns, as more foreign travelers visit the country to get high-quality medical treatment and plastic surgery. New statistics released by the Bank of Korea reveal that inbound medical tourism revenue exceeded outbound healthcare expenditure for the first time ever last year.
According to a Bank of Korea report, South Korea's medical tourism sector posted a record US$115.6 million in income for 2011. This represented the country's first ever annual medical travel surplus, as the inbound income surpassed local resident's overseas spending on medical treatment, which amounted to US$109.1 million last year.
The South Korean government has earmarked international medical tourism
as a key part of the country's overall economic plan going forward. In 2009 the government embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign, called 'Medical Korea,' which has worked to promote the country's medical facilities overseas as a new reason for international travelers to visit the country. During this time, the government has also been working with private healthcare groups in the country to implement a national registry system, specialized medical treatment visas, and a 24/7 medical call center for foreign patients to contact in case of emergency or misunderstanding.
The government's decision to prioritize medical tourism development has begun to reap dividends. According to Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), 81,789 foreign patients visited Korea for some kind of medical treatment in 2010, a 36 percent increase on 2009, with total revenue from treatment nearly doubling as well. The Ministry recorded 7,901 inbound foreign patients in 2007, 27,480 in 2008 and then up to 60,200 in 2009. Foreign patients are now visiting South Korea for a wider range of treatments as well. While in the past Korea was primarily seen as a destination for elective cosmetic surgery procedures, an increasing number of foreign patients are now seeking more serious surgery and medical treatment in the country's advanced healthcare facilities. According to the KHIDI, 9,993 foreign patients with such demands sought treatment in Korea last year, equating to 12 percent of all inbound medical tourists, and spent US$49 million between them, or more than half of foreign tourists' net outlay. The KHIDI noted that oriental medicine, gynaecology and orthopaedics have also grown in popularity among foreign patients in Korea. Most medical tourists are now coming from China or Japan
. The Korean Embassy in China issued 1073 medical tourist visas in 2011, up by over 300 percent from a year earlier.
Overall income from medical tourism has nearly doubled in the past five years as well. In 2006, when the Bank of Korea first began collecting the related industry data, medical tourism income stood at just US$59 million. The figure then rose at a steady pace, moving from US$68 million in 2007 to US$70 million in 2008, US$83 million in 2009 and then up to US$89.5 million in 2010. Meanwhile, the money spent overseas by Koreans for treatment during this period fell from around US$119 million in 2006 to US$109 million last year. The government data is based on details provided by incoming travelers and credit card purchase information.
Both the number of foreign medical tourists visiting Korea and their expenses has seen a sharp rise in the past few years. At this pace, the Bank of Korea estimated that as many as 400,000 foreign patients could visit Korea annually by 2018, brining with them an added income of US$1.34 billion.
Despite this considerable progress, it should be noted that South Korea still lags behind many of its Asian neighbors in medical tourism development. India
, Singapore and Thailand, for example, managed to attract 730,000, 720,000 and 1.5 million overseas patients in 2010 respectively. Although the quality and pricing of Korea's medical services are comparable to its continental rivals, the global awareness of their services remains quite low. Critics cite the previous lack of national focus and regulatory support as key impediments, which lead to a lack of control over health outcomes and service quality for foreigners. The South Korean government wants the total number of foreign patients in the country to surpass 300,000 annually by 2015. To do this they have initiated several medical tourism reforms that are designed to cut red tape and become more foreigner friendly, all while guaranteeing patients' rights to best international standards.
Last year legislation was passed which gives foreign patients the right to seek compensation if they become a victim of medical malpractice in South Korea. Previously there was no compensation standard for non-resident malpractice victims, which was a strong disincentive for potential foreign medical tourists. The South Korean government established a mutual aid association, comprised of Korean hospitals and clinics, to implement this initiative. The association collects medical tourism surcharges and uses the pooled funds to compensate foreign patients when claims arise. Through this new national body, the government will work to further encourage the private sector to invest more in attracting overseas healthcare clients. While many Korean healthcare groups recognize medical tourism as a vital growth industry, many of the country's hospitals have not yet set up the appropriate medical care infrastructure expected by many foreigners. Compared to other international medical tourism markets, the lack of foreign language capability amongst many Korean healthcare providers remains a concern. The government announced plans
to address this issue by increasing training for medical translators and by expanding the services of the national healthcare call center.
Asia's medical tourism industry is set to grow, with a forecast value of US$100 billion annually by the end of 2012. The extensive development of the global macro economy combined with falling costs for travel and communication has enabled world-class healthcare facilities to establish themselves all around the world and auction their services appropriately. International clients who are now seeking alternative healthcare solutions to what is available in their home countries at competitive prices are now presented with so many opportunities. If South Korea wants to become a major player in this market, and surpass Singapore, Thailand and India, these reforms represent a decent start.