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Korea- A Plan for Action


A growing number of patients are traveling to Korea for medical procedures every year. Since the government got involved and started allowing marketing efforts, Korean hospitals have been filled with foreign patients in search of the most valuable healthcare.

Korea has seen the biggest trend with Chinese medical tourists, since they started offering medical visas in 2009.

According to an article in the Korea Times, the Korean Embassy reported that the number of Korean visas issued in China surpassed the 1 million mark for the first time last year.

In the 2010 Statistics on International Patients in Korea report, 81,789 foreign patients traveled to Korea. This report does exclude the expatriates who reside in Korea for more than three months. While the number of Chinese patients boomed in 2011, the report from 2010 shows that 32.4 percent came from the U.S.( 4,829 were U.S. Army patients), 19.4 percent Chinese,16.8 percent Japanese and  7.7 percent Russian.

“Since we started really marketing medical tourism we have seen an increase from Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the Middle East, these areas were not the target market,” said James Bae, director of international marketing, Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI).

The Bank of Korea reported the income from medical tourism in 2011, was the highest yet, it stood at $116 million. Back in 2006, when they started keeping data, income from medical tourism was $59 million.

“Since early 1990s, there have been international patients visiting Korea for better care. It was in 2007 that Korean hospitals actively started medical tourism in collaboration with KHIDI and KTO (Korea Tourism Organization),” said Mr. Bae.

Mr. Bae added that the most frequent conditions of medical tourists include: Gastro-intestine diseases, cardiovascular, cancer, infertility, orthopedic, and spinal pain.   “Patients travel to Korea because of the level one quality of healthcare, and it is for a lower price.”

The Korea Times also reported that high numbers of Chinese and Japanese are traveling there for plastic surgery.

The Korean government

In January 2011, the Ministry of Health & Welfare along with KHIDI announced a series of action plans to advance Korean medical tourism to the next level.

Mr. Bae shared these action plans:

  • Establishing “Korea Medical Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Agency” to better deal with any medical dispute for not only domestic but international patients (Apr, 2012)
  • Allowing more capability for healthcare providers to accommodate guest rooms other than patient beds
  • Expanding Medical Korea Charity Program (for children in need) and Medical Korea Academy Program (for training international physicians)
  • Planning to establish the education center to nurture experts in medical tourism and international patient care (expected to complete in 2013)
  • Evaluating healthcare providers on the readiness for international patients and publishing the results (2012)
  • Establishing three more overseas offices of KHIDI to develop more healthcare business opportunities in those regions (in Kazakhstan, UAE, UK, July 2012)

“In January 2009, President of Korea announced medical tourism, A.K.A, global healthcare as one of the next growth engines of Korean economy. Accordingly, the Congress amended Medical Act allowing Korean hospitals to do marketing activities to allure foreign patients, which had been prohibited before the amendment,” said Mr. Bae.

Since the government got involved it influenced how current hospitals view different markets. Korea is one of the only countries in the world that generates official statistics of medical tourists. All healthcare providers engaged in medical tourism are required to register at KHIDI, and report annual statistics about their medical tourism activities. At the end of 2011, there were 2,081 hospitals and clinics registered with KHIDI.

“The growth in 2011 is partially because we are keeping up and expanding the marketing efforts,” Mr.  Bae added. “We are seeing more growth year by year; we are expecting to see 150,000 in 2012 and 300,000 in 2015.”

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