The Ministry of Health and Welfare has involved in establishing and revising related laws and regulations to improve the medical environment for foreign patients while easing the regulations on the medical tour market and support the marketing efforts. Jung Ho-won, the Director of Health Services Bureau at the ministry, is leading such efforts from the government.
In particular, he tries hard to build foreigner-friendly infrastructures such as establishment of medical arbitration agency, minimization of medical visa process, diversified foreign language services, etc., to meet the needs of medical tourists. Here are some excerpts from the interview with him.
Please tell us about the roles and job fields that the Ministry of Health and Welfare actually takes on for the promotion of medical tourism.
One of the Ministry’s important roles is above all to run the “Registration System for Attraction of Foreign Patients” as the first responsible government office of the medical tourism business. The Ministry is involved in establishing and revising related laws and regulations to improve the business environment of the registered medical institutions and marketing agencies. Also, the Ministry tries hard to build foreigner-friendly infrastructures; for example, it provides biannual education of the nationwide registered institutions to prevent foreign patients’ medical disputes.
The Ministry’s another important role is to explore new markets and diversify marketing channels to attract medical tourists so as to broaden the arena where the registered medical institutions and marketing agencies can work. In particular, the Ministry has created cooperative alliances for healthcare with emerging resource-rich countries. These countries have affluent natural resources but poor medical supply systems, so their governments are active in sending patients with serious diseases abroad and importing advanced medical systems. Accordingly, the strengthened alliances with them have resulted in the increased number of medical tourists (yearly average growth rates: 118.9% from Central Asia & 72.2% from the Middle East).
What about the types of foreign patients, their satisfaction on treatment, and the performance in attracting foreign patients?
We had about 60,000 medical tourists in 2009 and 80,000 in 2010. But the number reached 120,000 in 2011, more than doubled in three years. And the medical revenue from these people was more than tripled to 180.9 billion won in 2011 from 54.7 billion won in 2009. I don’t expect to have difficulty in achieving the goal of 150,000 medical tourists this year.
Among all foreign patients, outpatients accounted for about 78%, medical check-up patients 12%, and hospitalized patients 10%. About 12% visited Korea with serious diseases, and their medical expenses contributed to 44.3% of the total medical revenue from foreign patients. So, it is important to attract these high value added visitors.
And their satisfaction on medical treatment was very high. We got 3.59 points out of 4.0 in the survey of foreign patients from the US, China, Japan and Russia last year. The main reason they visited Korea was because of the excellence and good reputation of Korean medical institutions and medical professionals (35.5%). They expressed the highest satisfaction with the services provided by hospital personnel such as doctors, nurses and international medical coordinators. They pointed out kind employees, highly professional medical staff, clean and convenient hospitals, up-to-date medical equipment, and prompt results of medical examinations, as the virtues of Korean medical services.
It is notable that Japanese patients picked “Integrated services of tourism, shopping and medical treatment” and the US patients “Foreigner-friendly medical environment” as their main reason to visit Korea.
What is your opinion about the nation’s competitiveness in infrastructures of medical tourism? And what do you think of challenges to overcome?
The world-class medical technology is our biggest power to attract medical tourists. In the cases of stomach cancer, liver cancer, cervical cancer and thyroid cancer, Korea showed a five-year longer relative survival rate than the US and the EU countries in 2011. In the case of apoplexy, Korea showed the lowest death rate among the OECD countries; 2.5 patients of every 100 died within 30 days after hospitalized in Korea while 6.7 patients died in the US and the OECD average was 5.2. The success rate of the liver transplants conducted by the nation’s largest-scale liver transplanting hospital was a staggering 96% in 2010, the world’s number one (the advanced nations’ average: 85%).
On top of the highly skilled and professional human resources, Korea has lots of up-to-date medical equipment. Korea is the only Asian nation that has proton therapy center and also has DaVinci Robots, Cyber Knifes, Gamma Knifes, Trilogy, and others. And the U-Health remote examination and treatment system based on the world’s top-tier IT technologies hints the bright future of the medical tourism. More importantly, our global competitiveness is once again assured by the fact that we provide these kinds of high-class medical services at far lower prices than the US or Japan.
Despite these virtues, we still have work to do to fully satisfy the medical-purpose foreign visitors as you mentioned. Among the registered medical institutions, there are quite a lot which lack foreign-language signs and explanations, restaurant menus for foreigners, dedicated medical staff and coordinators, and interpreters. In addition, accommodations for patients and their families as well as related service items like resorts, tourism and shopping should be expanded.
There are some opinions that the medical tourism business can cause some side effects, for example, to discriminate against Korean patients, polarize medical services, or undermine the nature of public services. What do you think about that?
The issue that the increase in the number of foreign patients would limit the natives’ access to medical services had been raised even before the medical tourism business was started in earnest according to the revised Medical Act.
To prevent this from happening, we limit the number of foreign patients’ beds in upper-class general hospitals to no more than 5% of the permitted for all (2-5 of Provision 27 in the Medical Act, 5 of Provision 19 in the Enforcement Regulations of the Act). Actually the foreigners’ bed occupancy rates in upper-class general hospitals were just 0.15% in 2009, 0.19% in 2010 and 0.44% in 2011, respectively. And, as of 2011, the total number of foreign patients was 122,297, which is about 0.27% of the Korean patients (0.09% in case of hospitalized patients). So, foreigners’ influence on the natives’ access to medical services is trivial.
Rather, I believe the increasing number of medical tourists will help solve the oversupply of domestic medical personnel, beds and equipment, and improve neighborhood hospitals’ depressed business environment. Naturally, this will lead to higher-quality medical services and strengthened medical security to Korean patients, too. Statistics shows that the proportion of foreign patients in upper-class general hospitals is in a downward trend (45.9%→43.3%→38.4%) and that in neighborhood hospitals moves in an opposite direction (18.1%→23.5%→25.1%).
What kinds of improvements are needed to expand the medical tourism?
To enhance foreign patients’ convenience and security, we have made many improvements. Now foreign patients are permitted to fill their prescription in hospital and documents required for medical visa have been minimized. Medical tourists also can take our national air carriers at a discounted rate and our international airports have transportation systems for foreign patients within their perimeters. Besides, we have established the Korea Medical Dispute Meditation and Arbitration Agency as well as the system to assess the medical institutions’ acceptance of foreign patients. And we have enforced the medical institutions to append their foreign-language names.
Also, to ease the regulations in the medical tour market and support the marketing efforts, we allow the registered medical tour agencies to partially work as general travel agents, and the general travel agencies to register as medical tour agencies only if they are insured for damages to clients. In addition, we have adopted the national certification scheme for international medical tourism coordinators.