South Korea becoming medical tourism hub

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The medical tourism market in South Korea is expected to grow around 30 percent during 2010-2012, according to a study from RNCOS, a global market research and information analysis company

A robotic operation performed at the Wonkwang University Hospital on September 29, 2011

Clean, modern facilities, and a warm welcome greet patients at several South Korean hospitals that have made it their goal to facilitate the growing trade in medical tourism here.

Thanh Nien Weekly visited four Korean hospitals late last month and was introduced to state-of-the-art medical institutions, qualified medical practitioners and the advanced practice of oriental medicine. South Korea is emerging as a major medical tourism destination and the country is trying to surpass Singapore, Thailand and India to become Asia's new medical tourism hub.

To this end, Korea has over the years built up an impressive one-stop infrastructure to serve medical tourists, an increasing number of which are coming from the United States, Russia, China, Japan and many other nations in the region.

As part of the Medical Korea promotion project, the Korea International Medical Association (KIMA) a government-private joint initiative founded in 2007 to promote Healthcare in Korea internationally has held many familiarization tours like the one Thanh Nien Weekly was a part of.

One-stop services

Tourists arriving at Korea's Incheon International Airport can find the Medical Tourism Information Center, which offers a rest area, information on medical institutions and travel agencies, and free Internet access.

In Seoul, foreigners can visit the Medical Tourism Promotion Center for a professional medical consultation. There, they can also use a BMI (body mass index) machine, a stress measurement device, and a blood pressure meter for free.

All hospitals we visited have reception desks for foreigners providing all services they need, including hospital and hotel reservations, consultations, payments, and more.

A room at Andong Hospital's Guesthouse. Photo by Fang Pei

Managers at Andong, Bumin, Good Gang-An and Wonkwang University hospitals ensured us that they currently have professional interpreters who can help translate between Korean doctors and foreign patients.

With the growing number of Chinese and Russian visitors to Korean hospitals, many hospitals now provide booklets in Russian and in Chinese.

Good Gang-An Hospital said 90 percent of its foreign patients are currently from Russia. The number of foreign patients there has increased from only 88 in 2009 to 347 in 2010 and 285 in the first eight months of 2011. Bumin Hospital revealed it had so far received 420 foreign patients, including 70 from Russia and 40 from China.

Andong Hospital offers its Good Morning Health Tour program that allows guests to receive comprehensive medical check-ups and health examinations while staying at the Andong Hospital Guesthouse with comfortable and luxurious rooms overlooking the Nakdong River, said Kang Shin Hong, execute director of Andong Hospital Group.

Visitors to Andong have also a chance to discover many tourist attractions there, including the Bongjung-sa Temple built during Chosun dynasty in 672, the ancient Hahwae Village, the Wolyyoung Bridge - the largest wooden bridge in Korea, the Andong City Folk Museum and Gyemyoung-san Natural Forest.

Da Vinci Robot

574-2 Susang-dong Andong-city, Gyeongsangbuk-do
Tel: + 82-54-840-1280 (contact Kim Lee Young - team manager)

344-2 Shinyoung-dong, Iksan-city
Tel: +82-63-85-0122/0123

80-4 Dukchun-1Dong, Buk-ku, Busan Metropolitan City
Tel: +82-51-330-3078 (Bumin International Cooperation Team)

40-1 Namcheon-dong, Suyonggu, Busan Metropolitan City
Tel: +82-51-610-9182
Email: to Kathy

Wonkwang University Hospital in Iksan City is proud of its Da Vinci Robotic Surgery System for Cancer Treatment, mainly for treating prostate cancer, renal cancer, bladder cancer, thyroid cancer, colorectal cancer and cervical cancer.

During our visit to Wonkwang University Hospital on September 29, we had a chance to observe a patient undergo a robotic surgery. We watched as a surgeon sat on the external robot operating seat and manipulated the machine. The robot arms and camera moved inside the patient's body while performing the surgery. It punctured three holes in the patient's belly through which the robot arm entered to operate. The surgeon looked at the robot camera that provided 3D images 10-15 times bigger than the target lesion.

Dr. Ill Young Seo, director of International Health Care Center and associate professor of Wonkwang University's Department of Urology, told us that there are some 30 Da Vinci robots in Korea, each costs up to US$2.5 million.

Ill Young Seo said that using a robot in surgery helps save time as well as the amount of transfusions by decreasing intra-operative bleeding, and it helps shorten the inpatient stay period so that patients can easily return to their lives.

A robotic surgery costs about 10 million Korean won (around $8,480) on average.

Medical compensation for foreign patients

From 2012, foreign patients will be able to receive compensation if they fall victim to medical malpractice in Korea, the Korea Times reported, citing an announcement by the Korean government in August this year.

A therapist helps a patient at the rehabilitation center of Gupo Bumin Hospital. Photo by Fang Pei

Currently, there is no proper compensation system for foreign patients from malpractice as hospitals and clinics are reluctant to pay higher subscription rates for insurance, the paper said.

But the Korean government will now set up a mutual aid association. The association will have hospitals as members and each member hospital will pay a certain amount of money from the fees it charges foreign patients. The association will use the pool of money to compensate these patients.

The move comes as part of a detailed plan to boost medical tourism, aiming to increase the total number of foreign patients coming here to an annual 300,000 by 2015, the Korea Times said.

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