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[News Focus] Korea seeks to boost medical tourism as future growth engine

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : May 30, 2023 - 15:11

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South Korea aims to boost its medical tourism industry as a key driver of future growth, with a target of attracting 700,000 foreign patients annually from 2027. However, challenges such as the language barrier and complex immigration procedures still remain.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare set a goal of attracting more foreign patients to undergo medical treatments or get cosmetic surgery in Korea by increasing the number of foreign patients visiting the country by 26 percent each year.

According to the ministry, the number of medical tourists visiting Korea shot up 70.1 percent on-year in 2022 to 248,000, up from 146,000 in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic started to wane.

When foreign patients visit "excellent medical institutions" designated by the government, they will be able to apply for visas online instead of visiting Korean diplomatic missions overseas. The number of "excellent medical institutions" will be expanded from 27 last year to more than 50 this year.

The range of caregivers and guardians who can accompany foreign patients will also be increased. Previously, the scope of caregivers was limited to spouses and their immediate family only, but it will be expanded to siblings. In addition, the obligation to submit documents to prove financial capacity in visa applications for caregivers will be dropped.

Also, the government plans to create "wellness medical tourism clusters" throughout the country so that foreign patients and their caregivers can enjoy a vacation along with their medical treatment. The clusters will be built in Busan, Incheon and Daegu.

Within those clusters, foreign patients and caregivers will be able to easily enjoy hot springs, shopping and sightseeing after using medical services. Currently, between 70 to 80 percent of foreign patient visits are concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area, and the plan is to ease regional bias with this strategy.

The government sees medical tourism as a future growth engine. It is known that medical tourists spend about ten times more money than ordinary tourists. Also, the medical tourism market is growing significantly. The global medical tourism market size will become $346.1 billion by 2032 from $115.6 billion in 2022, according to a recent study.

However, as it currently stands, Korea's medical tourism allure is low compared to other countries. According to the 2020-2021 Medical Tourism Index released by the International Healthcare Research Center in July 2020, Korea ranked 14th among 46 medical tourism destinations. The data was gathered by conducting a national survey of 3,030 Americans and asking questions about three categories -- the medical tourism industry, destination attractiveness and medical service quality. Canada topped the list, followed by Singapore, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, Dubai, Costa Rica, Israel, Abu Dhabi and India.

The biggest reason why it is difficult for foreign medical tourists to choose Korea as a destination is because of the language barrier.

Lim, a 27-year-old Singaporean, is experiencing such difficulties now. "In Singapore, the procedure cost is high, so I looked for Botox and filler procedures in Korea, which is relatively inexpensive, but most of the clinics did not provide interpretation, and it was difficult to make a reservation," Lim said.

"To attract more foreign patients, Korea needs to support various languages at hospitals and clinics and establish a system for foreign patients to make appointments with doctors through their websites," an official from the Korea Health Industry Development Institute said.

There are also concerns about boosting medical tourism by easing immigration procedures. The problem of illegal stays under the pretext of medical tourism is a task to be solved. About 20 Mongolians who came to Jeju Island for the purpose of medical tourism disappeared in June 2022. A further 91 Thai nationals who entered Korea as medical tourists disappeared the previous summer, too.

"The Ministry of Health and Welfare will closely consult with the Ministry of Justice to resolve and eradicate the illegal stay issue," Jung Eun-young, director of the Ministry of Health and Welfare's Health and Health Industry Policy Bureau, said.