The opportunities for Korea in medical tourism

South Korea is a country that has come late to the medical tourism game, but it may in the long term become one of the winners. Perhaps initially attracted by the inflated forecasts that are touted around the medical tourism industry by “industry experts” and commentators, Korea has however taken a more realistic view of where its success may lie.

The recent Busan Medical Tourism Convention provided an insight into how Korea is thinking about the opportunities presented by medical tourism. In 2010, Korea is expecting to attract around 60,000 medical tourists and the target is to attract 140,000 in 2015. This is not an unreasonable target and is far more realistic than some of the numbers that we see appearing from government and tourism organisations in other countries. The “highest quality, lowest cost” strategy is not one that Korea wants to pursue or indeed should be pursuing. Korea’s research into existing medical travellers shows that quality, convenience and trust factors far outweigh cost related drivers. In terms of relative costs of healthcare services, Korea is significantly less expensive than the USA (but then every country is) but is not as price competitive as countries such as India, Singapore or Thailand. Indeed, something like a knee or hip replacement would cost a similar amount in Korea to the cost of private treatment in the UK.

So, Korea is not going to win on cost. Nor is it going to attract vast numbers of medical tourists from Europe. Its prices aren’t competitive enough and long flight times will deter potential European patients. The same may apply to patients from the USA if the much hyped US medical tourism boom begins to happen. For a US patient, the perception of quality of care in medical destinations such as Korea, Singapore and Thailand may be very similar. So, if it comes down to the cost factor, Korea will lose out.

So, from where is Korea looking to attract its patients? The drivers of accessibility and cultural match provide the answer:

  • Although the USA is a twelve hour flight away, cultural connections mean that the Korean community within the USA has to be a prime target. Around 1.2 million Korean Americans, many of whom are on the West coast should provide a source of patients.

  • Within a one hour flight from Korea is Japan, already a source of many cosmetic surgery tourists, and where healthcare costs are rising fast.

  • And not much farther away is China which may provide a plentiful supply of medical tourists in the longer term.

  • The interesting market that Korea and many countries are turning their attention to is Russia. With the movement towards a market economy in Russia, there’s a wealthy upper class that is investing abroad, taking holidays abroad....and seeking healthcare abroad.

How can Korea create a competitive advantage in the overcrowded world of medical tourism? It may not be in Western medicine; Kang Dong Hospital in Busan is a Korean hospital that combines Western medicine with “traditional” oriental medicine and provides a model of healthcare that is attractive to many in the Far East.

Another opportunity is for Korea to build on its existing strengths and the image it has created in world markets. Through the success of companies such as Samsung and LG, Korea has created a hi-tech modern image for itself. Applying its technological knowhow and skills to the medical tourism sector may prove advantageous in creating an edge over the competition. The only technology company that I have encountered at a medical tourism conference so far is Samsung.

It has been said that Korea’s success in technology and in manufacturings industries such automotive lies in its ability to copy what others are doing, learn from their mistakes, do it better and work harder at it. If Korea applies the same philosophy to medical tourism, then some of the more established destinations will be looking over their shoulders.