Learning points from Medical Korea 2021

Medical Korea 2021 was the country’s 11th global healthcare and medical tourism conference, hosted by the Ministry of Health, and organised by the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI).  Ian Youngman looks at what was discussed on medical tourism trends and forecasts, and the implications for South Korea.

KHIDI is a government-affiliated institution that provides support for the improvement of public health and enhancement of international competitiveness in the health industry in Korea.

At Medical Korea 2021, KHIDI President Kwon Soon-man said, “Korea’s healthcare industry is showing remarkable growth despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and we should cooperate and prepare for the future amid the health crisis.”

Ideas and information that came out of the conference included:

  • Quarantine directives and visa issues discourage international patients from visiting Korea. These should be relaxed for foreigners, to help revive the medical tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The government needs to come up with new strategies to attract foreign patients.
  • The government should offer various support measures and open opportunities for telemedicine.
  • Most foreign patients from Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan are not financially well off, but the mandatory quarantine for two weeks at a hospital under the fast track programme costs over 12 million won (US$10,592).
  • The fast-track programme allows a severely ill foreign patient to receive medical treatment at a hospital, on the condition that the patient stays in a single room.
  • The fast-track programme is only for affluent patients.
  • The first step should be easing quarantine directives for foreign patients who have already received a Covid-19 vaccine.
  • There is more need for digital healthcare but the nation’s institutional and legal measures do not reflect digital healthcare much when it comes to encouraging international patients’ visits.

KHIDI has not yet set new measures for foreign patients entering Korea, but it will expand the fast-track plan to patients with mild symptoms.

Before the pandemic, international patients could visit Korea as long as they could afford minimum medical costs and expenses for their stay. However, now, only severely ill patients who need urgent care or affluent patients can visit.

Hospitals in provincial areas with a limited infrastructure rarely attract foreign patients through agents, unlike those in Seoul where agents are actively involved. So international patients are likely to prefer hospitals in the Seoul metropolitan area and medical institutions in remote regions will lose opportunities to attract them.

Some cautioned against the government’s push to increase the number of visiting foreign patients, citing the pandemic. Medical institutions may also find it difficult to attract foreign patients and benefit from this profitable revenue stream, while the Korean people are still concerned about imported Covid-19 cases. There was agreement at the conference that there should be a public consensus on attracting foreign patients.