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Korea Medical Tourism

Feature: The Medical Tourism Money Pile

One of the South Korean government’s top budget priorities is expanding the country’s medical tourism industry. It’s a $20 billion-a-year global market, and Korea is looking to grow its slice of the pie.

Being the frail creatures that we are, with an even weaker resolve for accepting the inevitable knock of death at the door, humanity’s long history of crossing borders for medical procedures is not at all surprising.

Though it’s long been a common practice, the earliest record of an organized medical tourism industry, specifically catering to foreigners, goes back several thousand years to the enterprising Greeks. At that time, people of means from all over the Mediterranean traveled to a small city in the Saronic Gulf called Epidauria – known then as the sanctuary of the healing god Asklepios. While you might well have never heard of Asklepios, you’re certainly familiar with two of his five daughters, Hygieia (hygiene in English) and her younger sister, Panacea.

Later recordings of organized medical tourism come to us from 18th century England, when spa towns and sanitariums became popular destinations for people seeking soothing mineral waters and other treatments believed effective in curing ailments such as bronchitis, gout and liver disorders.

While far from enjoying the popularity of countries such as Thailand, Hungary, India and Singapore, South Korea saw 630,000 overseas patients for medical treatment between 2009 and 2012, spending just shy of $1 billion over the course of four years.

Perhaps most interesting is that, historically, these early models of modern medical tourism catered to those of great wealth; people who could afford the long travel and the costly fees for treatment. Nowadays, people cross borders for medical care with a mind toward saving money.

While countries such as the U.S. and Germany were popular medical destinations throughout the 20th century, modern organized medical tourism started in Thailand during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when a crippled Thai health industry was fighting for its very survival.

In an act of utter desperation, the Thai government set about marketing the ‘Land of Smiles’ as a medical tourism destination. The results have been staggering. Last year, 2.5 million medical tourists passed through Thai turnstiles, spending $4.31 billion in the process.

This brings us to the current race by a handful of nations trying to get a slice of the $20 billion global healthcare tourism market.

Korea Makes Its Play

Since the earliest recorded history, Korea has enjoyed a sizable reputation for its medical prowess throughout Northeast Asia. The oldest known piece of Chinese medical literature, the Hwangtui Suowon, which dates back to 50 B.C., notes the “stone needles originating from the East” – referring to the varied kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula at that time.

While far from enjoying the popularity of countries such as Thailand, India and Singapore, Korea saw 630,000 overseas patients for medical treatment between 2009 and 2012, spending just shy of $1 billion over the course of four years with an annual growth rate of 38.4%. To better grasp the lucrative nature of this form of tourism to the Korean economy, the 12 million vacation tourists that visited Korea in 2013 spent just under $15 million.

The holy grail of medical tourism demographics are the American and Chinese markets. For the Chinese, it’s about quality; for Americans, it’s about quality at a lower price.

South Korean Medical Tourism industry

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a steady clip of roughly 1 million Americans traveled abroad for medical treatment in each of the past five years. And why not? Statistics from show the cost of heart bypass surgery in America averaging $144,000, while in Korea it averages $28,900. And a $14,000 hip replacement in Korea is far more appealing than the $50,000 Americans would spend at home.

In 2012, China surpassed the U.S. for having the most travelers to Korea for medical care. Numbers by the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHID) show that 32,503 Chinese sought medical attention in Korea, just surpassing the 30,582 Americans doing the same, followed by Japan, Russia and Mongolia.

With 970,000 more Americans out there going abroad for treatment (now mostly to Europe, over once popular destinations such as Mexico, Thailand and India) and obviously a lot more Chinese looking for healthcare abroad, the Korean government, under President Park Geun-hye, is going all out to get them treated on the Peninsula.

Perhaps most interesting is that, historically, these early models of modern medical tourism catered to those of great wealth; people who could afford the long travel and the costly fees for treatment. Nowadays, people cross borders for medical care with a mind toward saving money.

Massive deregulation now allows South Korean medical corporations to set up subsidiaries and commercial enterprises, such as tourism programs and hotels targeting patients from overseas. These loosened regulations permit Korean businesses to open up ‘meditels,’ which are often full-service, internationally accredited medical clinics inside large hotels.

While Korea has top-notch, highly regulated medical facilities that can take care of just about anything that ails you, most of her medical tourists are coming for cosmetic surgery. Korea is well-known for having the world’s highest per capita rate of cosmetic surgery procedures, which are far and away the most popular services among medical tourists as well. According to the KHID, the number of foreign tourists receiving cosmetic surgery has grown 77.3% over the past four years.

Whether the world’s growing number of medical tourists are looking to get their heart fixed, their hip replaced or their youthful glow restored under the knife, Korea is well-positioned to snatch a larger piece of this burgeoning market.

The Korean Tourism Organization has set the bar high by aiming for 598,000 medical tourists in 2015 and 998,000 in 2020. Time will tell how it all plays out, but the investment, the infrastructure and the right regulations are all in place to make it happen. The welcome mat is dusted off and ready.


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