Over the past several years, South Korea has developed a well-earned reputation as a leading – if not the leading – medical tourism destination for cosmetic procedures. People from all over the world, especially from Asia, are visiting the top-notch plastic surgeons for unbelievable facial makeovers, and also the world-class dentists for smile makeovers, too. However, the country’s travel & tourism honchos have their sights set on more than just making people look beautiful, and they believe there is great potential to become a leading destination for many other procedures popular with medical tourists.
And the potential does appear to exist: the country’s highly-skilled surgeons cross all disciplines, not just cosmetic procedures; many perceive the medical system to have a technological edge over competitors, as South Korea boasts of advanced medical-records networks, absolutely cutting-edge imaging equipment, and state-of-the-art robotic surgery facilities; and its accredited hospitals are recognized by the international community as exceptional for fertility treatment, new cancer treatments, and spinal disorders, among other specialties.
Seeing this opportunity to move up the ranks of medical tourism destinations, South Korea has been investing and promoting. Tourism overall was up 13% in 2012 to a record 11 million visitors, and there has been big growth in the numbers of medical tourists, so much so that Incheon international airport in Seoul now has two kiosks for travelers: one for medical tourists, and one for everyone else.
In 2012 South Korea treated 150,000 health tourists, and while the official outlook is for 400,000 per year by 2015, there is a belief among some in the Korean National Tourism Organization that the number can reach several million medical tourists per year in the long run, as they try to compete with Asian health-tourism heavyweight Thailand. With that aim, South Korea is now aggressively promoting itself to not only the West, but to places for whom healthcare facilities overseas are more advanced, and where Thailand medical tourism is firmly established: Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Middle East. We’re seeing it succeed a bit already as 45,000 Vietnamese visited South Korea in the first half of the year for medical tourism and conferences.
These lofty goals may not be so easily achieved, however. First of all, there are government regulations to contend with. According to the Hyundai Research Institute (HRI), South Korea’s thus-far relatively weak performance in the medical tourism sector is being inhibited by the strict rules which local hospitals must submit to: apparently, they are not allowed to accommodate foreign in-patients amounting to greater than 5% of their capacity; and, foreign-licensed medical specialists encounter difficulties and limited freedom to practice in those institutions.
Secondly, for all the talk about cutting-edge medical tourism in South Korea, there have been reports of discriminatory pricing for foreign patients who have been charged double or triple what locals are charged, which seems to cut against a major emphasis of medical tourism – at least for Western patients – which is the cost savings.
And finally, unlike the easy passage they experience when heading to Thailand and Singapore for healthcare, medical tourists from the aforementioned Southeast Asian countries must travel much further and must obtain visas when heading to South Korea. And like affordability, there’s no underestimating the importance of convenience when discussing medical travel.
So, while the potential is there for South Korea to make great strides as an international medical tourism destination, there are definitely some obstacles that they must contend with first.