[Letters] Small clinics need help to attract foreign patients

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[Letters] Small clinics need help to attract foreign patients

Since 2009, the number of foreign patients visiting Korea for medical services has been constantly growing and has reached 110,000 in 2011. The number is expected to grow to 300,000 by 2015. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the economic impact of medical tourism is likely to be comparable to exporting 540,000 units of LCD televisions or 35,000 mid-sized automobiles. The government has already selected the medical tourism industry as one of the 17 new growth-engine industries.

However, according to statistics by the Korean Health Industry Development Institute, more than 70 percent of foreign patients visited general hospitals. The number of patients visiting clinics increased by a small margin, but they made up less than 20 percent. Most of the foreign patients visiting Korea for medical care are concentrated in major general hospitals.

Many smaller clinics specializing in cosmetic surgery and dermatology are known for outstanding medical technology. However, they are struggling to win the trust of foreign patients because of their size. Foreign patients tend to prefer clinics that are operated as a corporation, not run by individual doctors. Some smaller medical clinics have applied to establish medical corporations, but the Ministry of Health and Welfare denied their applications, on grounds that the approval criteria define that medical corporations can be established in medically vulnerable areas and must come up with real estate owned by them.

Leading medical tourism countries such as Singapore, Thailand and India offer various assistance such as medical tariff and corporate tax exemption and tax benefits on the income from treating foreign patients.

In 2002, the Korean government announced that it would introduce for-profit hospitals in Songdo, Incheon, to attract foreign patients, but no visible outcome has been attained after 10 years.

In order to compete with other medical tourism leaders, the medical corporation permit system has to be revised. Then, smaller clinics can appeal to foreign patients. It is an essential measure for the medical tourism industry to become a new growth engine just as the government anticipates.

by Choi Cheong-hee Attorney at the Seseung Law Firm
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