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Room for medical tourism in South Korea to grow
Hong Kong, December 18, 2014

SOUTH Korea’s medical tourism market is projected to play an increasingly important role in Asia over the next few years, but the country needs to maximise its strengths amid growing regional competition, according to findings from the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.


South Korea, however, has yet to fully benefit from the Asian medical tourism market, wrote Samuel Seongseop Kim and Jinsoo Lee, who shared a SWOT analysis from interviews of 15 primary stakeholders in South Korea’s medical tourism industry in a research paper.


In 2010, six million tourists from the US alone travelled abroad to receive medical care, and this number is expected to increase to 23 million by 2017. Approximately 45 per cent of medical tourists from the US travel to Asia, attracted by the relatively low cost of medical care. Asian medical tourists are also a huge potential market, as 93 per cent of all medical tourists originating in Asia remain in Asia.


South Korea received 81,789 foreign medical tourists in 2010 for an annual growth rate of 36 per cent, but their spending on medical care amounted to only US$100 million, compared with the US$1.4 billion that foreign patients spent in Singapore during the previous year.


Thailand and India have also been highly popular with medical tourists from both the US and Asia due to low costs and high medical standards.


The researchers stated that South Korea’s strengths lie in having high-quality medical staff and offering advanced medical services, and patients seek treatment in hospitals that specialise in particular treatments such as ophthalmology and plastic surgery. Furthermore, the government shows strong support for the field, with the aim of making the country a major medical tourism destination.


A lack of promotion in the industry is cited as one of the biggest weaknesses of South Korea. Publicising the outcomes of empirical medical research, the researchers argue, would lead to better evaluations of South Korea’s medical institutions. Government agencies and institutions are not centralised, and such disjointedness reduces the effectiveness of cooperative marketing ventures.


The researchers hence suggest that more patient-oriented services and cutting-edge IT offerings could be introduced, providing a one-stop service to differentiate the country from its competitors such as India, Singapore and Thailand.


Other areas for improvement include the need for medical professionals who are multilingual, understand other cultural backgrounds, and are competent in both medicine and tourism. Further limitations are caused by the lack of supporting legal systems for medical visa issuance, medical disputes, insurance or indemnification, with low levels of legal liability not conducive to attracting medical tourists in comparison to Thailand and India.


The cost of medical treatment in South Korea is internationally competitive but still above what tourists could expect in destinations such as Thailand and India, mainly due to higher labour costs. The Korean government, they suggest, should monitor the price of medical services to address this threat and maintain a transparent pricing system.


Meanwhile, Taiwan has emerged as a new competitor, attracting Chinese patients from the mainland and overseas, while the number of visitors from the Middle East is expected to decrease as the quality of medical services in countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia improve. The researchers also mention that the anti-Korean cultural movement among Japanese far-right groups has discouraged Japanese from visiting South Korea for medical treatment, and that the critical press in China may put off visitors from the mainland.

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