The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has issued a report calling for health care reforms in Korea. The report advises the government to license for-profit health care companies. It received a mixed response from the government. The Strategy and Finance Ministry liked the idea of regarding health care as an industry, while the Health and Welfare Ministry wants to keep it in the realm of social welfare. The previous administration had wanted to allow investment in hospitals and medical care facilities in order to expand the health care industry. But the policy hit a roadblock due to a dispute between the two ministries.
As the OECD pointed out, investment in hospitals and medical companies is a global trend, but the absence of an advanced infrastructure limited Korea’s medical tourism to just 60,000 patients to the country in 2009.There is a potential for Korea to move beyond the original base of cosmetic surgery to more expensive medical treatments for cancer, cardiac disease and neurological problems. With additional investment, the health care industry, and specifically the medical tourism industry, has the potential to become more lucrative.
Last year, the government included the healthcare industry as one of 17 sources for new economic growth and launched a Medical Korea marketing campaign. But medical tourism has difficulty competing in a tough market when hospitals and clinics are restricted by many restrictions and regulations.
One area that the country hopes will attract medical travellers, particularly from the USA, is a new proton therapy center within Korea's National Cancer Center. Charm Lee of the Korea Tourism Organization says, "Korea is on the forefront of medical technology. Patients spend two months of proton treatment and have an interesting, inspiring, refreshing, and regenerating experience." Korea believes that the U.S., with its high prevalence of prostate cancer (less common among Asian men), is a perfect fit for a package that costs a patient $48,000 and includes airfare, accommodation, and daily transport to and from the hospital. This advanced form of radiation therapy is available at just seven U.S. hospitals. The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be nearly 218,000 new cases of prostate cancer in the U.S. in 2010 and more than 32,000 deaths.
Korea's efforts to create the right image for its medical tourism program will be wasted if it does not first address issues such as the international accreditation of hospitals and language barriers, according to Geoff Moss of American medical tourism agency Planet Hospital speaking to The Korea Times, "Medical tourism isn't just about marketing an image, their hospitals need to meet certain requirements. Certain agencies in Korea are too focused on selling an image and brand for Korea. A patient does not get influenced by a brand or image. They get influenced by service, innovation and the price. A lot of hospitals in Korea think they can just put up a sign that says 'welcome medical tourists' and people from all over the world will show up. It is important that each hospital gets internationally accredited to assure the hospitals are up to international standards." The company is looking at Korean hospitals to add to its network. Moss feels Korea is on the right track to implement a successful medical tourism programme, but some aspects need to be addressed. Planet Hospital took 18 patients to Korea but encountered some setbacks. Geoff Moss explains, "We ran into problems such as languages issues, lack of follow-up care by the doctors, and nurses having no power to administer medication to sick patients. We have since fixed that problem by working with KMI International which handles all ground logistics for us and also provides full English speaking concierge services." Moss believes Korea's attempts to get U.S. insurance companies to send their patients to Korean hospitals are pointless, "Insurance companies are not sending patients abroad in any large numbers. So no matter how hard Korea lobbies them, the insurers will not be persuaded because they are not ready." Moss says Korea should try to focus on companies who pay for their employees' health care, since they are the ones who are ready to send their workers abroad for treatment. Global Korean companies such as Hyundai, Kia, Samsung and LG could also be given incentives to send their employees working in overseas offices to Korea for medical care. The agency does like the fact that Korean prices are much less than American ones, and sees potential in specialist areas such as proton therapy.