With the latest passage of a set of bills to support easier overseas advances of the medical industry, the government said Thursday it will aim to attract some 500,000 foreign patients in 2017, while also creating new jobs for young Koreans.
The National Assembly late Wednesday night passed a string of medical-related bills that would, among other things, allow distance consultations between Korean doctors and overseas patients and job training programs for interpreters and medical coordinators starting from June next year.
The revised bills, however, have been criticized by some in the civic and medical sectors that opposed last year’s law revision allowing medical institutions to set up various types of for-profit subsidiaries, including hotels and travel agencies in an attempt to promote medical tourism.
The Health Ministry has been facing fierce resistance from medical unions that argue the government is “privatizing medical services” and patients will eventually have higher medical bills as a result, and that hospitals are turning into “giant shopping malls and hotels.”
“The bills are allowing medical companies to make profits overseas,” said the Korea Federation Medical Activist Groups for Health Rights, a body of health care workers including physicians and pharmacists. “Now that hospitals are allowed to make money overseas, are they really going to care about their patients in Korea?”
To this, Park Ji-hye from the Health Ministry said the competition will only improve the quality of medical care at home. “The revised bill is just giving another opportunity for the industry to grow,” she told The Korea Herald. “We believe the competition against overseas companies will only improve the quality of services we have at home as well as of the ones Korean companies will pursue overseas.”
Meanwhile, last year 125 Korean medical institutions launched projects or businesses overseas, while 270,000 foreigners visited Korea for medical treatment. The government says it would create some 50,000 jobs for Korean young people within two years.
With the new bill giving various tax benefits to medical companies who wish to pursue a business overseas, the Health Ministry hopes to see more than 160 Korean companies enter the overseas market in 2017.
Korean medical companies will also now be allowed to promote their services through ads at duty-free shops, airports and ports in Korea. Prior to the introduction of the bill, medical ads targeting foreign visitors had been prohibited.
It was only in 2009 that Korea allowed medical institutions to receive and treat foreign patients not covered by Korea’s National Health Insurance.
Distance consultations between Korean doctors and foreign patients will also be permitted online, so that visitors can get more information before making a decision to physically visit Korea to receive treatments they may be interested in, the officials said.
Some of the new job opportunities to be created are for interpreters for foreign patients, especially those from the United Arab Emirates. The ministry also hopes to train medical coordinators who will deal with foreign patients during consultations and nurses who wish to work overseas.
”There aren’t too many people who can speak Arabic and are knowledgeable in medical terms and issues,” said Park from the Health Ministry. “So we want to train those who speak the language so they can be experts both in Arabic and health care.”
The bills stipulate that all medical institutions that receive foreign patients must be insured for medical accidents and all patients must be informed about their rights and possible adverse effects of their treatments.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com