South Korea’s demographic projections make for unsettling reading: with one of the world’s lowest birth rates, its population is set to age more rapidly than that of any other advanced nation over the next 35 years.
The trend, however, will mean a boom in demand for medical services – a dynamic that the government is keen to complement by promoting rapid growth in the country’s medical tourism, pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries.
The most conspicuous area of growth in this sector is reflected by the plastic surgery advertisements that line the subway stations of Seoul’s wealthy southern areas. South Korea has one of the world’s highest number of plastic surgeons per capita, reflecting an image-conscious culture that pushes job applicants to include photographs with their CV even when seeking administrative work.
The huge international success of South Korean pop music and television shows has helped to make plastic surgery one of the most successful export areas for the country’s medical sector, as fans seek to achieve the stars’ glamorous looks.
“About 40 per cent of my customers are now from overseas,” says Park Yang-soo, founder of Dream Plastic Surgery, one of the leading cosmetic surgery companies. China is the most common source of business, with others coming from Japan, southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union. “Chinese customers want an obvious outcome – bigger eyes, a higher nose. But Japanese want something more natural.”
South Korea’s ambitions in medical tourism extend well beyond plastic surgery. Most of the country’s leading hospitals have started wooing foreign tourists with special international health centres. The hospitals promise patients from developing Asian nations treatment that rivals that offered in the world’s richest countries, at a significantly lower price. At Incheon International Airport meanwhile, there is a special information desk for medical tourists, as large as the one catering to all other visitors.
The business has spread well beyond Seoul. Lee Dong-wha set up Dowoo Tour four years ago to cater to tourists seeking plastic surgery in the southern city of Daegu. The company takes care of visa arrangements, hospital and hotel bookings, as well as organising sightseeing trips for recuperating patients. It has an office in Vietnam, and partnerships with agencies in other markets including China and Russia. “Daegu is a medical city – the cost is much cheaper than Seoul, but the medical quality is high,” Mr Lee says.
South Korea’s government this year announced plans to further encourage medical tourism, including a help centre providing legal support to foreign patients unhappy with their treatment, and relaxed visa requirements for medical tourists. The Korea Tourism Organisation is making ambitious forecasts for the sector: it projects that the annual number of medical tourists will rise from 399,000 last year to 998,000 in 2020, with resultant revenue rising from from Won1tn to Won3.5tn.
The government is encouraging South Korean hospital groups to establish businesses abroad; at the end of last year there were 111 such operations in 19 countries including China, the US and Mongolia. Meanwhile, it wants to attract foreign hospital operators to invest in special economic zones that have been established in areas such as Jeju, a southern holiday island, and Songdo and Incheon, in the area around Seoul. However, the first such proposal was blocked in September, when the government ruled that China Stem Cell Health Group was not qualified to build its planned for-profit hospital on Jeju.
Foreign groups in the pharmaceuticals industry have also had a sometimes difficult experience in South Korea. The country’s national health insurance system has used its position as the nation’s dominant buyer of drugs to achieve some of the lowest prices in the advanced world: the average price of drugs launched in the country since 2007 is just 44 per cent of the average for nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“In Korea the drug policy remains more focused on maintaining fiscal balance rather than promoting innovation, and that is why many global pharmaceutical companies are facing difficulties in running their business in Korea,” Kim Jin-ho, head of GlaxoSmithKline’s business in South Korea, said in July.
Foreign pharmaceutical groups have warned that they are already holding back from launching some new drugs in the country, and argue that the pricing policy will hamper the country’s hopes of developing an indigenous pharmaceutical sector. South Korean pharmaceutical groups focus mostly on “generics” – out-of-patent drugs originally developed by other companies. However, the research group Frost and Sullivan has named the country a potential leader in biosimilars, drugs derived from living organisms, which is another area benefiting from extensive government support.
South Korea has found a niche in the medical technology industry, with its main exports consisting of ultrasound scanning machines and dental implants. The biggest company in this field is Samsung Medison, acquired in 2010 by Samsung Electronics, which has targeted medical equipment as one of its main long-term growth areas.
“Korea is far behind” the leading countries in medical technology, such as the US and Germany, says Jin Ki-nam, a public health professor at Yonsei University. But he argues the sector can benefit from aggressive support from the state, just as the South Korean electronics and shipbuilding industries did in previous decades.
The government wants South Korea’s share of the medical equipment market to rise from 1 per cent to 5 per cent by 2020, and is providing funding and marketing assistance to the sector. “The government has seen the potential in this market. We can get a certain competitive edge,” Mr Jin says.