On the strength of the boom in medical tourism worldwide, South Korea and particularly Seoul have experienced a dramatic upswing in the number of foreigners seeking care. While the government has set a target of 100,000 foreign patients by 2012, South Korea is still a relative latecomer to the high-profit medical tourism industry and currently hosts only a tiny fraction of international patients traveling to Asia for care.
For many medical and surgical services, China, Thailand, and India hold a distinct cost advantage, while Singapore is known for its unbeatable technology and infrastructure. The Korean government is banking on distinguishing itself as a medical tourism hub in several specialized fields, most notably plastic surgery.
While patients from nearby countries provide much of medical tourism base, South Korea’s plastic surgery “goldmine” is made up of upper class wealthy Chinese females, a group that accounts for about 30% of all patients undergoing cosmetic surgery in Seoul.
The United States offers another large potential market. In 2008 alone, 1.5 million people from the United States are said to have traveled overseas for medical-related purposes, many of them to Central and South America. Although such statistics are likely highly inflated, the Korean government seems determined to capture a good part of this growing market, especially that segment comprising the large U.S. Asian-American population and especially Korean expatriates.
According to Korea Tourism Organization, 1 in 5 of nearly 200 Korean-Americans now living in Los Angeles who were surveyed reported that they had returned to South Korea for medical treatment, and nearly half said they did so because of low fees.
Recently, the Korean government lifted a ban against advertisements for medical services and instead began staffing new medical information centers for tourists. The Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion has developed medical tour packages for foreign visitors.
In the private sector, hospitals and clinics have begun vigorously recruiting patients via special pricing, improved translation services, tie-ins with local hotels and even casinos, and airport pick-up and delivery.
One major headache confronting any potential medical tourist is the need to sort through lists of unknown names in search of a good surgeon and modern facility. As in the United States, any Korean doctor who holds a medical license can offer cosmetic surgical services regardless of his or her specialty.
To complicate matters, not all providers in Korea are properly registered, and the underground black market is several times larger than the pool of practitioners approved by the government.