South Korea wants to expand medical tourism beyond cosmetic surgery

According to the Korean Health Ministry which has been promoting medical tourism since 2009, total medical tourist numbers rose from 60,000 in 2009 to 80,000 in 2010; with a target for 2015 of 300,000 medical tourists. The ministry says that in 2010 there were 14,000 Americans (although this number includes a significant number of military and business travellers) but the biggest spenders come from Russia, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam; so these are now target countries.

Korea and the United Arab Emirates have signed an agreement to strengthen cooperation in the healthcare sector, so Korea can advertise for patients in the UAE, where an estimated 8,500 patients spend about US $2 billion annually on overseas medical tourism, mainly to the United States, Germany, UK, Thailand and Singapore. Korean hospitals are also expected to open in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Six local administrations will receive subsidies from the Ministry of Health of $1.8 million to boost medical tourism. Gyeonggi Province is to invest in the field of minimally invasive surgery; Jeju in oncology treatment; Daegu in hair implantation and treatment; South Jeolla Province in joint treatment; North Jeolla Province in robot surgery and Daejeon in medical checkups. The island of Jeju plans to create an eco-friendly cancer treatment complex, while some hospitals in Daejeon will create foreigner-only emergency rooms.

The ministry will also support global marketing activities including advertising, exhibition booths, websites, and staff training. It will also subsidize invitations to foreign medical tourism agencies and participation in international medical events

Gangnam, a district of Seoul with 430 cosmetic surgery clinics, is the main destination for travellers from Japan and China. Many are reporting annual increases of 20% or more in the number of foreign clients, most of whom come seeking to look like popular Korean singers and actors. Gangnam’s district office has 47 special co-ordinators to assist clinics in communicating with foreign clients. The major clinics have already hired staff who are fluent in Chinese, Japanese, English and other languages.

But not everybody is happy. Writing in the Korea Times, Professor Fouser of Seoul National University argues, “Medical tourism is flawed as South Korea has the most rapidly aging population in the world as well as one of the world’s lowest birthrates. By 2016, the percentage of residents over age 65 will grow dramatically while the working age population will begin its decline. With fewer people supporting more retirees, Korea’s national and local governments will face rising public debt to finance pensions and health care. The aging population will generate increased demand for doctors and hospitals. Korea already lags far behind most other advanced nations in the number of doctors or nurses per capita. The changing demographic will place a noticeable strain on inadequate health care resources in Korea.” Fouser argues that the government’s push to develop medical tourism is wrong as it is based on out of date high-growth-era assumptions of ever increasing GDP, sound public finances, and a relatively young population. He argues that using limited resources of doctors, nurses, and medical facilities for foreign tourists seeking cosmetic surgery and other elective procedures is misallocation.