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Destination Spotlight

South Korea ~ Stepping into the Spotlight in Global Healthcare

Destination Spotlight

I was invited by the South Korean Government to give a presentation to the healthcare leaders in the medical community about the medical tourism industry and the potential marketplace for Korean healthcare providers in December, 20007.  After a twenty-two hour flight, I arrived at the Incheon Airport in Seoul.  Although the trip included a long flight, the friendly greeting by Alex Sung at baggage claim leading us towards the hotel shuttle was a welcome relief.  

Alex was hired by KHIDI, the Korean Health Institute of Development as our official tour guide during our stay.  As we approached the Seoul city skyline, it was very obvious that Seoul is a major metropolitan hub for South Korea.

Metropolitan Seoul

Seoul is not only the capital of Korea, but also the largest city in Korea. It is located in the center of the Korean Peninsula and has a population of ten million. Ever since King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty moved the capital of Korea to Seoul, it’s been the axis of economy, politics and culture. About half of Korea’s entire population resides in the Seoul Capital Area and nearly a quarter in Seoul itself.  

After the Korean War (1950-1953), Korea went through a modernization and development; this period of time was called the “Miracle of the Hangang.”  The river that runs through Seoul from east to west dividing Seoul into the Gangbuk and the Gangnam was actually named the Hangang River.

Seoul is a very traditional and culturally rich city and is the home of five palaces; the Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeonghuigung and the Gyeongbokgung, which harbors the National Folk Museum of Korea.  This Museum was most interesting, providing real life outdoor examples of how Korean commoners and nobles lived in traditional times.  

Don’t miss the jangseung, stone mounds and sottae, which are posts representing earthly and heavenly gods and wooden spirit poles.  The interior displays of the history of Korean lifestyles, arts and crafts and the Korean lifecycle provide a complete doorway into Korean culture and a terrific understanding of the its people.  If you are able to wait around during the scheduled times, you will witness an official changing of the guard.

The National Museum of Korea, which is also in Seoul and, with its 76 acres, it holds the place of the 6th largest museum in the world.  It is definitely worth spending the day here.

The beauty of Seoul is that it combines its strong tradition with modernization.  For instance, there are many restaurants and bars to choose from. Shopping options include Central City or the World Cup Mall, which was built especially for the FIFA World Cup in 2002. This mall offers over 100 stores to choose from and even a multi-screen movie theatre. There are also many antique shops and artisan specialty shops to choose from.

If it’s excitement that you’re seeking, you have the Lotte World amusement park and the Seoul Tower, which is the symbol of Seoul.  The Seoul Tower is the world’s third tallest tower, standing 360 meters above sea level.  After taking the elevator up to the observatory platform and on a clear day, you will see panoramic views of all of Seoul, getting a feel for the Seoul cityscape.  The Glass Terrace is an outdoor café with a view of the panorama where you can take a break for lunch.  If you want to stay for the sunset, you really should, as the transition into the glowing nightline is majestic.

But for the most cultural experience, you cannot miss the large outdoor markets and night markets located through downtown Seoul.  The fish market in the harbor is also something to marvel at, with its millions of fish offerings, it is no wonder that most people just pull up a seat right in the middle of the market, pick out their catch for lunch and sit down to eat right there.  With fish this fresh, you don’t want to waste time taking it home.


Korea is the leading healthcare country in Asia, providing top-quality healthcare and services including health screenings, major specialties, such as cancer treatment, cosmetic/plastic surgery, dental care, ophthalmology, otolaryngology/otorhinolaryngology/ENT, infertility treatment and Korean Traditional Medicine.  

Korea’s physicians, specialists and surgeons rank amid the finest in the world of medicine and, when combined with the revolutionary healthcare facilities and innovative technology, healthcare in Korea is truly unparallel.

Healthcare in Korea has evolved since 1989, committing the national health security system that covers the entire population as a mandatory social insurance system.  With the subsidized assistance from the government and contributions from the insured, Korea implemented a “low-premium, low-benefit” and “low-healthcare price policy” in order to employ this national health insurance system.

In order to ensure its success, hospital evaluation rose in Korea in an effort to improve the quality of healthcare by evaluating such the level of healthcare services provided and addressing any problems that may occur at the time services are rendered. In 2002 the hospital-evaluated bill was passed and in 2004 the Korean Hospital Association (KHA) conducted its first formal evaluation.  I met with Dr. Lee Chien Earn and learned about the evaluation program in detail.  Dr. Earn is very interested in developing this program to international standards and is looking to ISQua accreditation as an end result.

Medical Tourism as a Top Priority

The Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion (CKMP) is known as “the gateway to the Korea as a medical tourism destination”, and with the support of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, it helps promote Korea’s world-class healthcare services to the international community. It assures medical tourists of Korea’s safe and reliable infrastructure to secure transparency of quality care and patient safety.

The CKMP counts with thirty-four hospitals and specialty clinics. Its advisory board members include the Korea Health Industry Development Institute and the Korea Tourism Organization. CKMP is the motor behind the medical tourism efforts.

Ajou University Hospital

In 1994, the first landmark case occurred in the Gyeonggi Province, Ajou University Hospital successfully conducted the first case of knee cartilage bone transplant and enzyme replacement therapy for Gaucher patients. They also specialize in transplants of the liver, kidney and bone marrow.

Ajou University Hospital is a member of the Medical Tourism Association. It has the International Health Care Center, which in 2006 established a 24-hour foreign patient medical service system with the aid of the Gyeonggi Province government and it maintains a steady growth toward enhancing medical service for foreigners.

Boomin Hospital

A leader in Orthopedics, Boomin Hospital, located in Busan focuses on delivering specialized, “state of the art” treatment and care. Boomin Hospital Spine Center is a member of the Medical Tourism Association and counts with five out of nine board certified surgeons, an “aseptic operating room facility” to minimize infection throughout the duration of surgery and offers innovative procedures such as bloodless spinal surgery, and Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery utilizing laser assisted spinal endoscopy, MedX.

Hanyang Medical Center

Hanyang Medical Center in Seoul has been promoting Hanyang 2010 projects since it opened its doors in 1972 as the “greatest hospital in Asia” under its founding principle of, “Love in Truth and in Deed.” Hanyang Medical Center is backed by its prestigious school of medicine and specializes in heart disease and rheumatism.

Jaseng Hospital of Oriental Medicine

Utilizing optimized western therapies and oriental cooperative treatments Jaseng Hospital of Oriental Medicine opened its doors in 1999. Researchers from Oscher Research Center and Harvard Medical School have taken note of this phenomenon, as they both visited the hospital for their papers. A year ago, I was involved in a car accident and diagnosed with a herniated lumbar disc and bulging cervical disc in my spine.  

During my visit to Jaseng, I was particularly interested in means of alleviating back and neck pain through alternative means.  I underwent an MRI of the had a cervical MRI performed, which resulted in a diagnosis of no herniated disc.  After an acupuncture and chiropractic adjustment and some herbal medications for neck pain, I was on my way feeling relatively pain free.

Parkside Rehabilitation Hospital

Parkside Rehabilitation Hospital in Busan is surrounded by the Peace Park, Busan Museum, Busan Cultural Center and Arboretum, creating an ideal setting for its recuperating patients. Parkside is also a member of the Medical Tourism Association and since its inauguration in September 2006.  It has remained as one of the best rehabilitation facilities in Korea.

Parkside Rehabilitation Hospital has also had a great acceptance from the Korean community. Usually as the elderly continue aging, they are cared for at home; however, it is evident that the younger generation is transitioning into a new outlook and perception of rehabilitation and care.

Seoul National University Dental Hospital

Continuing its expansion process Seoul National University Dental Hospital currently treats an average of 300,000 patients a year providing them specialized clinical settings, operating rooms and hospitalization facilities. Seoul National University Dental Hospital specializes in dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery, prosthodonics, orthodonics and dental implants.

Severance Hospital

Korea’s first university hospital to receive Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation and is also a member of the Medical Tourism Association is the Yonsei University Health System’s Severance Hospital which was established in 1885. Severance Hospital holds close partnerships with U.S. health care institutions such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Severance offers fifteen specialized cancer clinics and was the first to introduce Robotic Prostatectomy, and holds over 500 cases since 2005. This procedure only takes one to two hours and the recovery period is one to two weeks. It was found that over 97% of patients maintain proper bladder control and over 53% returned to normal sexual function after six months.

Wooridul Hospital

A specialty hospital designated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare the Wooridul Spine Hospital specializes in the spine/disk, cervical, thoracic and lumbar surgery. Since opening in 1982, it standard of care has continued to improve. Its medical professionals publish 15 SCI-level theses every year and in 2005, Wooridul won the AHMA (Asia Hospital Management Awards) grand prix award in the Human Resources area; it beat out 84 other hospitals in 14 other countries throughout Asia.

International organizations such as (IMLAS) International Musculoskeletal Laser Society and (AAMISS) American Academy of Minimally Invasive Spinal Medicine and Surgery have designated Wooridul as an international training center for incubating spine specialists. Wooridul is a member of the Medical Tourism Association and has also received Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation. A state of the art sister hospital has been built near the domestic airport with spinal and cancer specialties of excellent credentials.

All in all, South Korea stands an excellent chance of becoming a new global leader in medical tourism.  If the initiatives of the hospitals to create high quality international patient services flows with the same passion and prioritized directives as the government promotional ventures, South Korea may become the new icon for Asian Medical Tourism.

By the way, Alex (Heesook) Sung may be reached by phone at 011-9731-3141 or by email at

Renee-Marie Stephano is the Chief Operating Officer and a Founder of the Medical Tourism Association, Inc., an international non-profit organization that serves international healthcare providers and medical travel facilitators in the global healthcare industry. Renee-Marie is an attorney licensed to practice law in the states of Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and has a background in litigation and health law. She is also Editor of the Medical Tourism Magazine, a monthly journal serving the global healthcare industry by free subscription at

Renee-Marie may be reached at

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