Allow investment in hospitalsThe area around Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul, is now considered a regional center for cosmetic surgery. It gets patients from Japan, China and Southeast Asia for minor and major procedures. Foreigners who came to Korea for medical treatment reached 80,000 last year. But the figure is not something to boast about.
Other Asian countries with less developed medical standards draw more foreigners for medical services. India drew 730,000, Malaysia 720,000 and Thailand 1.56 million foreign patients last year. These countries allow corporate and foreign investments in the medical field.
In Korea, small clinics and hospitals vie over a limited number of local patients. Of 59,255 medical facilities, 27,027 are clinics and 14,242 are dental clinics. In short, 70 percent of the country’s medical facilities are run by one or two self-employed doctors who can hardly afford new equipment or technology.
The government in 2009 named global health care as a potential new growth engine and planned to deregulate investments in medical services. But the plan was shoved aside after President Lee Myung-bak expressed concerns about expensive medical costs and deeper polarization in health care between the wealthy and poor if facilities were upgraded and enlarged.
But the problem could be easily solved if the health care industry were developed in two ways: allowing foreign and industrial capital into the medical industry and enhancing care for the underprivileged. Investment and competition would not only hone service quality but eventually lower prices. But if the medical industry remains domestic-oriented, it cannot make headway. Samsung and Hyundai would not have attained today’s global status if they had not turned their eyes overseas.
But revisions to laws allowing greater foreign and industrial access to the medical industry and better health care services remain idle in the National Assembly. Hospitals cannot issue corporate bonds to raise funds. The planned joint venture between Seoul National University Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital has also stalled because of delayed deregulation.
Allowing capital into hospitals is the stepping stone to a globalized health care system. Capital can allow convergence of information technology and biotechnology. The heath care market is estimated to be $4.7 trillion, bigger than the auto and financial industries combined. It could be the new epicenter for growth and jobs. The government and the National Assembly must break down the barriers fast.