Tourists flock in for medical care

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Tourists flock in for medical care

Korea is becoming a popular medical tourism destination for foreigners after a law allowing Korean hospitals to market services to foreigners took effect last May.

With the law’s passage, medical institutions can team up with travel agencies specialized in medical tourism to promote their services. In the past, Korean medical institutions were banned from marketing medical treatment to non-residents and travel agencies were forbidden to coordinate with hospitals to help foreigners travel to Korean hospitals and clinics.

The legal changes increased the number of international travelers seeking medical treatment here, with 55,000 paying visits from January to November of last year. Only 15,000 did so in 2008.

Some wealthy foreigners are opting to come to Korea because they can get good care from well-trained practitioners at reasonable prices compared to those in other advanced countries such as United States.

The percentage of cancer patients surviving more than five years in Korea improved to 57.1 percent in the 2003-2007 period. That’s an increase from a 41.2 survival rate during the 1993-1995 period. Some 66.1 percent of cancer patients in the U.S. and 60 percent in Canada have survived for over five years. Though Korea has a slightly lower survival rate for cancer patients overall, it has a higher survival rate for certain forms of cancer. Patients suffering stomach cancer in Korea have a 61.2 percent five-tier survival rate, far greater than patients in Canada and the United States who have survival rates of 22 percent and 25.7 percent, respectively.

In 2008, Koreans paid 730,000 won ($640) for medical treatment in a hospital on average. However, one Russian male patient in a university hospital paid 190 million won for medical treatment for liver disease, including surgery, hospitalization and antibiotics. The university hospital had two other foreign patients who spent over 100 million won.

Jang Gyeong-won, a director of the global health business bureau at the government’s Korea Health Industry Development Institute, said before the law on medical tourism was eased, most foreign patients came to Korea for plastic surgery and skin care. Now, more patients come for pricey medical treatment for such conditions as cancer and heart disease that can cost between 30 million won to over 100 million won.

A 60-year-old Filipino tourist had an emergency surgery at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital after he collapsed after a heart attack last December. The man, who spent 56 million won for care, was satisfied and asked hospital officials if there was any possibility for his 21-year-old daughter, who studies nursing at a college in the Philippines, to get a job in Korea after she graduates.

“I like Korean hospitals better than the ones in the U.S.,” the man said.

A 74-year-old Japanese woman spent 36 million won on spine surgeries at Wooridul Hospital in December. She said her first destination wasn’t Korea, but the U.S. However, she changed her mind after an American doctor recommended she get surgery in Korea. The performance of the hospital spread by word of mouth, and the hospital saw a 33 percent increase in Japanese patients receiving expensive treatment.

“Many foreign patients with severe diseases choose Korea for medical treatment after they do some research on the performance of Korean hospitals and compare that to hospitals in Singapore, Thailand and India,” Jang of the KHIDI said.”

By Shin Sung-sik, Kim Mi-ju []
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