How Can Korea Harness Medical Tourism to Attract Foreign Patients?
Luring more foreign patients has become of primary interest to the Korean medical community these days. It has become quite common for patients to travel to other countries in search of top-notch medical services at affordable prices. Each year, 26 million so-called 'medical tourists' travel abroad in search of treatments and the market is scaled at US$26.5 billion (around W40 trillion). We live in an era when medical services are becoming as readily accessible as consumer products. One of the main differences is the fact that consumers have to travel to specific countries for medical treatments.
Korea has advantages in terms of attracting foreign patients, since it offers high-quality medical services at relatively low prices. That is why the Korean government is allowing hospitals to market themselves to foreign patients, also guaranteeing commissions to travel agencies and insurance companies.
If medical tourism is to generate wealth for the country, it is necessary to take a closer look at the strategies and methods used by other countries in similar situations. 20 percent of Singaporean hospitals make a living catering to the needs of foreigners, while the remaining 80 percent serve its natives. There is a division of duties. Hospitals catering to foreign patients offer treatment systems geared toward such clients. Those hospitals try to minimize the period of stay for each patient, while offering one-stop services for all treatments. Foreign patients are hospitalized for three to four days on average (at Korean university hospitals, the average is between 8 to 12 days). Screening for cancer, endoscopic surgery, cosmetic and other short-term treatments are possible, while hospitals specialize in fields popular among foreign patients. Doctors are hired from countries where many foreign patients come from. And all hospital staff are required to acquire tour guide licenses, so they may offer local sightseeing information to foreigners. Hospitals for foreigners are increasingly run specifically for that purpose.
Foreign patients travel to countries with different cultures and languages and entrust not only their health, but their lives to doctors in another country. They are picky consumers. Everything must be done according to their standards. Hospitals in Thailand and India which serve patients from Europe and the Middle East are run as treatment centers catering only to foreigners. Similar establishments in Beijing and Shanghai are filled with foreigners and offer American-style treatment systems that differ from those offered to locals, and charge payments on a different financial scale.
But such facilities in Korea exist as components of domestic hospitals, located in one corner of an annex, staffed by doctors and nurses who can speak foreign languages. That is partly why they do not receive much praise from foreign patients and are often cited as being inconvenient. This is inevitable as long as foreign patients experience problems communicating at Korean hospitals, which lack English-language signs. Another awkward practice foreign patients face at Korean hospitals is having to pay for treatments before even seeing a physician.
Seoul is a "global city" that is home to 250,000 foreigners, including 13,000 Americans. Unless we offer foreigner-only hospitals, there is a high chance that we may end up losing foreign patients in the long term, despite some early successes.
By Kim Chul-joong from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk