Business of Well-being

Medical Travel Growth in South Korea and Strategies for the Future

medical tourism

South Korea is one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the world, drawing visitors and holidaymakers from around the world to experience breathtaking views of the Seoraksan National Park, the Seoul tower, or just to enjoy a quiet, spiritual walk in the ancient mountain top temples at the heart of the capital city. But in the last decade, South Korea has expanded its tourism brand to attract people seeking top-of-the-line medical care, and the country is well on its way to being a top destination for first-rate healthcare.

South Korea has, over the years, built a strong reputation in technological advancements to become one of the world’s most technologically developed and digitally connected countries. This has also boosted the country’s robust medical technology industry to become one of the major exporters of medical equipment, including surgical implants and imaging machines. As the country’s tourism industry began to expand in the last decade, Korean authorities began to leverage the country’s sought-after tourist experience to attract international patients to its highly-developed healthcare industry.

The most in-demand areas of medicine in Korea include plastic surgery, heart surgery, and spine surgery, with the country boasting one of the world’s highest number of plastic surgeons per capita, many of whom have received professional training in other advanced countries. Thanks to the increasing visibility of the country’s tourism brand and expertise in cosmetic surgery driven by the huge success of Korea’s pop music and TV shows, plastic surgery has become a big driver of medical travel to Korea, attracting nearly half of the 497,464 international tourists who visited the country in 2019

The Korean government’s desire to promote its medical travel to a wider patient base has led it to leverage innovative strategies to expand its niche to other areas of medical expertise and establish itself as a leading medical tourism brand. A critical point in this journey for the country came in 2020 when the pandemic hit the globe.

Korea demonstrated a robust capacity to quickly flatten the curve within weeks when the rest of the world was still grappling with curbing its spread. The country leveraged highly effective policy and institutional responses to deal with the outbreak; In less than 6 weeks, using effective testing, information sharing, contact tracing, and quarantine measures supported by tech-driven analytics, the country was able to contain the virus in the first wave without shutting down the economy completely. Subsequent waves were tackled with the same strategies, reducing the timeline of restrictions and getting the economy back on track in time. 

South Korea’s approach to tackling the pandemic quickly became a model for the rest of the world and set the stage for a more rapid economic recovery for the country. Consequently, this strategic and decisive COVID-19 response made the country one of the safest travel destinations, a factor that has become a vital determiner in choosing medical tourism destinations.

As part of its longer-term plan to revive the economy, South Korea designed the Korean New Deal, which would foster partnerships and investments across all facets of the economy, including its medical travel industry. As part of the project, the Korea Tourism Organization, partnered with the Medical Tourism Association, the world’s leading medical travel expert, to expand healthcare offerings to a wider international patient base. The partnership is aimed at building key international collaborations in healthcare, securing investments in its medical industry and technology industry, and promoting the country’s model COVID-19 containment, preventive, and pandemic preparedness strategies.

These factors will no doubt drive the medical tourism industry in the future as recent surveys have found that the safety and public health profiles of tourism destinations now guide health consumers’ decisions in choosing an international health provider.

Further, the new partnership with the MTA will leverage Korea’s matchless affordability of care to boost inbound travel of patients from countries with high-priced medical services. The deal would secure direct contracting and other innovative healthcare plans between large employers in many developed countries, including the U.S. and the UK, and centers of excellence in Korea that offer top-notch healthcare at a fraction of the cost in their countries. 

For comparison, international patients can get an orthopedic surgery done in South Korea for less than half the cost in the U.S. For example, a spinal fusion surgery, which is done for $100,000 in United States hospitals, can be done for $23,000 in South Korean Centers of Excellence

Speaking about the partnership, Jonathan Edelheit, Chairman and Co-founder of Medical Tourism Association. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for life-improving and critical care remains the same, if not more heightened by chronic conditions and financial complications; heart procedures, transplants, and cancer doesn't go away. This is the untold story over the last six months. Many patients don't have alternatives and need to access healthcare elsewhere. South Korea offers this along with the essential elements of safety and trust patients need in selecting a destination for medical care," says Edelheit, who has also been surprised by the continual receipt of patient inquiries through from those looking at international travel even at the outset of the pandemic.

In addition to partnering with the MTA, the KTO has also collaborated with the UAE to showcase its advanced medical offerings for international patients. Recently, the Dubai Office of the KTO hosted medical tourism key players in UAE, including SATA Travels, AITayer Travel, and Omeir Travel to showcase the country’s top-grade health facilities, advanced treatments, wellness resorts, and cutting-edge technology. The organization has also launched a four-in-one travel expo that will feature the country’s thriving tourism sectors, including its medical travel business, to stakeholders from around the world.

With these strategic collaborations and partnerships, South Korea is, no doubt, consolidating its efforts to revamp and rebrand its healthcare system to reach a wider international patient base and become a global leader in medical travel. Given its current position as the 14th top medical tourism destination by the Medical Tourism Index and its model response in combating COVID-19, Korea has what it takes to lead the pack of global medical travel leaders in the near future. 

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