South Korea Poised to be a Global Medical Travel Hub Post-COVID-19

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It has been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world, crippling businesses, and plunging the world into a global recession. For much of last year, countries closed down their borders, businesses shuttered, and many employees lost their jobs. The deafening silence in airports also meant air travel was at a standstill, keeping many tourists, including those seeking medical treatments abroad, waiting in uncertainty.

Medical travel was one of the hardest-hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic. While airlines, medical tourism agencies, and other stakeholders were closed for business or operating at low capacities at the peak of the pandemic, many medical treatment providers suspended all elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgeries, elective orthopedic surgeries, and bariatric surgeries, to free up hospital resources to deal with the pandemic. This created a pent-up demand for these healthcare services across the world.

The economic implications of COVID-19 have caused many employers in the United States who self-fund their healthcare plan to look for significant cost-reduction strategies in their healthcare spend. This may push more adoption of medical travel, which includes significant cost savings, with United States self-funded employers. 

One of the key drivers for outbound medical travel in the United States has been cost savings. Many employers implement medical travel programs with international hospitals to reduce their surgical or specialty drug expenses by 50% to 80%. Employees traveling overseas are being incentivized through the waiving of deductibles, coinsurance, airfare, and hotel costs, plus thousands of dollars in cash. HSM Solutions, a North Carolina company with a self-funded healthcare plan, reported millions of dollars in savings in a corporate medical travel health plan that sends its employees to Costa Rica for surgeries.

In the post-pandemic era, medical travel will be more of a norm, adopted and integrated into self-funded healthcare offerings, to cut down healthcare spending while meeting the pent-up demand for medical care.

This was reflected in the recent State of Employer Healthcare & Benefits 2020-2021 survey conducted by Global Healthcare Resources and sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) to evaluate the outlook of medical travel for employer-sponsored healthcare in the post-pandemic era.

According to the survey, which involved 168 participants — most (110) of whom were United States employers, brokers, and payers — cost savings (72.3% percent) was the major reason why employers would implement a medical tourism program in the post-pandemic era.  Sixty percent (60%) of the survey participants say they would definitely implement a medical travel program for their employees if it offers 50 to 90 percent in cost savings for major surgeries, while 40% said maybe, and 0% said no they would not consider implementing a program.

When asked why employers, payers, and others would implement medical tourism 72.3% chose cost savings, 55.3% chose quality, 55.3% chose availability to receive cutting-edge care not available locally, and 47.9% chose Accessibility (faster care).  

However, there was a caveat — employers now use a new metric to assess the attractiveness of a medical tourism destination: compliance with COVID-19 safety measures.

Creating a feeling of safety and trust amid the pandemic remains the biggest hurdle for the medical industry after the pandemic, and would be the most important determinant of medical travel programs in the future. According to the survey results, nearly half of the respondents (46.8%) said that because of the pandemic’s effect on their business they would offer medical tourism only if it were safe for their employees to travel, while 45.6% said maybe, and only 7.6% said no they would not.

Therefore, in the post-pandemic era, destinations that have implemented safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 will be the major players.

The survey findings revealed that most respondents (91 percent) say they were more likely to choose a hospital or healthcare provider that is compliant with COVID-19 guidelines and is duly accredited/certified for safety than one without COVID-19 guidelines, certifications, or accreditations. This includes not only healthcare providers and hospitals but also other medical tourism stakeholders, including hotels and airlines.

Given this context, countries that demonstrate effective infectious disease control protocols and implement effective strategies to rein in the coronavirus outbreak will become key players in the medical tourism market. One such is South Korea.

South Korea leveraged effective testing, contact-tracing, and quarantine measures to beat the outbreak within 6 weeks. This three-pronged strategy the South Korean authorities implemented became a model for the rest of the world. The country halted a massive outbreak and flattened the curve within weeks of the first wave through these aggressive strategies to become one of the safest places to travel.

South Korea used surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data, and credit card records to trace coronavirus patients and identify transmission chains. All of this achieved without shutting down the country.

Besides safeguarding patient safety, South Korea also boasts of a quality healthcare system. Its medical tourism market has been one of the most popular destinations in the world, with various advances in medical technologies in the past decade. The medical tourism industry boasts millions of international patients yearly, especially from China, the United States, and Japan, with its medical travel program still running during the pandemic.

The country boasts of recent advances in cosmetic surgery, cancer treatment, organ transplantation, and orthopedic surgery at highly affordable costs. For comparison, United States employees can get a hip replacement surgery done in South Korea for less than half the cost in the United States. Also, a spinal fusion surgery, which is done for $100,000 in United States hospitals, can be done for $23,000 in South Korean Centers of Excellence. This means cost savings of 50-90 percent for self-funded organizations.

For self-funded organizations that wish to contract affordable and quality healthcare for their employees to foreign hospitals, South Korea is one of the choicest destinations. The hospitals and healthcare providers are evaluated with quality metrics designed by the Korean Accreditation Program for Hospitals Serving Foreign Patients (KAHF). These quality metrics ensure that these healthcare hubs deliver patient care that is on par with international standards.

Seoul is at the heart of the country’s medical travel market, with renowned medical care providers like Asan Medical Center, International Clinic, Konkuk University Medical Center, and Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, which has been accredited for quality by the Global Healthcare Accreditation Program.

These hospitals have international patient departments that ensure seamless coordination of care for foreign patients across the care continuum. Patients also do not need to worry about language barriers, as these hospitals have well-trained staff fluent in multiple languages, including English.

While many American employers are yet to contract healthcare services to South Korean providers, the post-pandemic era may experience a paradigm shift. With the pandemic restrictions creating pent-up demand for elective procedures, more employees are willing to explore medical travel in countries like South Korea to access safe and affordable healthcare.

Korea Tourism Organization:

Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) is an organization of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST). It is commissioned to promote the country's tourism industry. The KTO was established in 1962 as a government-invested corporation responsible for the South Korean tourism industry according to the International Tourism Corporation Act.  The organization promotes Korea as a tourist destination to attract foreign tourists. Starting in the 1980s, domestic tourism promotion also became a function of the KTO. Inbound visitors totaled over 17 million in 2019 (17,502,756 visitors) and the tourism industry is one of the greatest contributors to the Korean economy.