Hospitals Race to Lure Foreign Patients

      January 14, 2009 08:01

      In 2007, Korea posted a W65 billion (US$1=W1,352) deficit for its medical service account. This was the result of more Koreans traveling abroad for medical treatment than foreigners coming here for medical care. Until now, it had been illegal for people in Korea to recommend the services of a hospital or mediate between a patient and a medical institution for profit. The only authorized types of medical services were those given to foreigners who came to Korea seeking treatment.

      According to the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion, 37,000 foreigners visited Korea last year to receive medical treatment, more than double the 15,000 who came in 2007. After lawmakers passed a bill last Thursday allowing Korean hospitals and other medical institutions to market their services to foreigners, the Korean medical community is predicting 2009 will be a banner year for the medical tourism industry.

      Korea's medical industry is racing to meet the demand. Hospitals are hiring interpreters, while some are planning to place ads on newspapers catering to Korean communities overseas.

      The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs projects 80,000 people will visit Korea for medical treatment this year. But some civic groups are voicing opposition. They fear hospitals may pay less attention to Korean patients. So the welfare ministry will limit the number of foreign patients at each hospital to less than 10 percent of their total number of patients.

      At present, there are 7 million medical tourists worldwide, spending between W40 to W60 billion, marking an average annual increase of 15 percent since 2000. This has prompted countries around the world to lure medical tourists. Germany, with its advanced medical services, attracts more than 50,000 medical tourists a year, providing information about its leading hospitals and other medical institutions through the "Committee for the Promotion of German Medicine Abroad."

      The U.S., which saw more than 400,000 patients from the Middle East, South America and other less-developed regions arriving last year for medical services, does not have a policy of attracting such customers. But it publicizes its best medical institutions through international conferences and other networks. Singapore created a medical tourism visa and offers tax benefits and other perks to medical institutions that attract foreign patients. Such policies led to $330 million in revenues in 2005 alone.

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