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Korea plans to focus on medical tourism

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Korea aims to quadruple the number of foreigners visiting here for medical purposes to 1 million by 2020 with the main focus of advertising being the Middle East, the nation’s top health officer said in a recent interview.

“The number of medical tourists is expected to reach 250,000 this year,” Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo said. “Our goal is to see 1 million medical tourists in a year by 2020.”

Moon said this all depends on the Middle East.

“The Middle East countries offer huge opportunities for Korea. Although they make enormous money exporting oil globally, they depend highly on overseas medical services because of a lack of infrastructure there,” he said.

“About 120,000 people from the UAE and 200,000 from Saudi Arabia visit other countries annually to get medical treatment,” the minister said.

Medical tourism is a major growth business for Korea.

Amounting to 60,201 in 2009, medical tourists soared to 122,297 in 2011 and 211,218 last year. Revenue jumped to 393.4 billion won ($368 million) last year from 54.7 billion won in 2009.

Contrary to popular belief, cosmetic surgery only accounted for 8.6 percent or 24,075 out of a total of 211,218 medical tourists.

Internal medicine accounted for 68,453 cases or 24.4 percent, followed by 28,135 medical examinations and 25,101 for dermatological help.

“The portion of foreigners visiting the country to get plastic surgery is expected to decrease as Korean hospitals are diversifying their services in response to rising demand from foreign patients,” Moon said.

There is a great deal more potential for growth in this area he believes

“Many Middle Eastern countries are flush with oil dollars but lack top-rated medical services,” he said.

Last month, Moon and Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, chairman of Health Authority-Abu Dhabi agreed to upgrade the Korean medical license from “Tier 1” to “Tier 2.”

This means Korean doctors will need only three years’ clinical experience in Korea to work as physicians in Abu Dhabi. Before the deal, the requirement was eight years.

“The deal will put Korean doctors on equal footing as American ones over there,” Moon said.

In August, Seoul National University Hospital (SNUH) signed a contract to manage a medical center in Abu Dhabi.

The hospital will manage a budget of 1 trillion won ($987 million), which covers 65,000 square meters and has 248 beds.

“The success of SNUH is critical, which will breed other successes. If not, the image (of Korean medical services) will be damaged,” he said.

According to the ministry’s data, the chance that stomach cancer patients here remain alive for the first five years is 65.3 percent, while those in the United States is 26 percent. For liver cancer patients, the chance here is 25.1 percent, whereas it’s 13.6 percent there.

“There are reasons why people around the world keep visiting Korea for medical services. It will become like our televisions that are dominating the global market. They know Korea offers better services at cheaper costs,” Moon said.

“Ultimately whether we can do it or not depends on the private sector,” he said. “What we can do is to leave a way open for expansion by removing unnecessary regulations and improving cooperation with other countries.”

Korean companies’ overseas expansion is also happening in the fields of pharmaceuticals and medicine, he said.

Since October, Ecuador has recognized the approval of Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to import Korean drugs. Last year, Boryung Pharm’s Kanarb Tab high blood pressure medication broke into the Mexican market.

Despite the achievements, Moon said, the English ability of Korean medical personnel has become a problem.

“When Korean nurses visited the UAE last month, many of them failed to pass the test for their license because their English wasn’t good enough,” he said.

The ministry will try to help them by opening specialized courses at the Korea Human Resource Development Institute for Health & Welfare.

Meanwhile, he talked about the nation’s readiness against the ongoing Ebola epidemic.

The minister said he “cannot sleep well” nowadays because of concerns over the world’s worst Ebola epidemic, which has killed nearly 5,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“Korea is not safe from the disease. In fact, no country is,” he said. “It’s simply impossible to monitor every visitor from other countries, and it’s not the right thing to do diplomatically, either.”

He said the ministry is preparing for the “worst case scenario.”

“We are trying our best to prevent it,” he said. “One of the things we have done is to check visitors daily from the Ebola-hit countries in the first 21 days, which some countries are still hesitant to do.”