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Medical tourism: Wave of the futureIs it right for Jeju? A report from the 6th Jeju Forum
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승인 2011.06.01  13:56:16
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Medical tourism is becoming a global phenomenon.

The national government in Seoul has identified medical tourism as one of 17 growth industries for Korea, further delineating Jeju as a target region.

This niche industry seeks to attract foreign patients for medical treatments, cosmetic procedures, and wellness therapies. Far from being a new idea, travel for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment was common in Ancient Greece.

Proponents of the concept have recently been attempting to re-brand it, either to distinguish between 'medical travel' and 'medical tour' or to abandon the terms altogether in favor of 'global healthcare.'

The recent 6th Jeju Forum for Peace & Prosperity devoted two sessions to this topic.

The first session provided an overview of the industry. Two main speakers gave presentations: Prem Kumar Nair, director of the renowned Singapore Raffles Hospital and Lee Chul, president and CEO of Yonsei University Medical Center.

Prem described the Raffles Hospital programs in detail and presented a powerful example of successful medical tourism.

Lee reported that there are more than 2,000 medical facilities in Korea which are currently capable of attracting foreign patients, although he didn't identify the criteria on which this assessment is based. He further delineated the US, China, Japan and Russia as primary targets, suggesting that the Seoul metropolitan region was the optimal location.

Lee identified a number of problems, however, including fierce competition as too many regions across Korea are including medical tourism as a growth industry.

According to Lee and several panelists, the medical care infrastructures expected by foreigners are not yet in place. Communication skills are a primary concern, as there is a perceived lack of foreign language facility among healthcare providers.

Korea's national health care system permits physicians an average of 3 minutes per patient, deemed efficient but lacking in physician-patient interaction. This is unacceptable to foreign patients who are paying out-of-pocket with an expectation of service.

Foreign credit cards are often disallowed, and private insurers are forbidden.

In the event of medical mishap or malpractice, the potential for litigation is problematic for non-citizens, as is the lack of follow-up care when patients return to their home countries.

Further, Korea's medical system lacks a service-for-fee structure due to the national insurance program. The current system doesn't allow for an exact pricing prior to services being rendered, something which would be prohibiting to potential foreign patients.

The physician-centered medical system in Korea is also unacceptable to potential patients, many of whose home countries have adopted a patient-centered system.

There is no centralized governance of this industry and minimal regulatory support, which will result in a lack of standardization. Under current national law, hospitals may only allot a maximum 5 percent of the total bed capacity to non-citizens. The law also forbids domestic hospitals from operating on a for-profit basis, though this is currently under review.

A final but perhaps primary concern was raised in relation to the medical care of citizens. Currently, there is a long queue for non-emergency medical care in Korea. Under a medical tourism system, foreign patients would need to be fast-tracked, which sacrifices healthcare for citizens and breeds resentment among the populace.

Despite these issues, Jin Soo-nam, executive director for the Medical Tourism department at
the Korea Tourism Organization, presented in detail a new campaign launched by KTO – the slogan for which is, “Medical Korea.”

In the second session, the main speaker was Lee Dong-sun, director of Jeju Development Corporation's Medical Business Department. He presented on the JDC Healthcare Town project.

Among the panelists were local and regional medical experts and community leaders, who discussed whether this type of initiative is viable and appropriate for Jeju Island.

The JDC Healthcare Town project is already well underway. Although the scheduled opening of Phase I has been delayed by a year to 2012, the land is fully purchased and development has begun.

This would seemingly render the Forum debate either belated or entirely moot.

Many of the concerns previously addressed were also raised in the Jeju-specific session. A representative of Halla Hospital said that there is “no foundation” for such an initiative at this time, and no such model in Jeju.

Council member Lee Sunhwa stressed the lack of emergency care on Jeju due to its isolation as an island. While recognizing this as an economic opportunity with a need to distinguish Jeju from other regions of Korea bidding for the same foreign 'customers', she emphasized the development of a “communal feeling” with Jeju residents, who are likely to feel 'cheated' in such a venture.

English communication is a problem on Jeju, Lee expressed, but not the only one; there are human resources or personnel problems as well in staffing such a facility adequately.

However, while she acknowledged that abrupt change is difficult, she also stressed that Jeju should not miss an opportunity and should emphasize the wellness programs to be offered in Phase I of the Healthcare Town project.

Many panelists emphasized the lack of direct flights to Jeju as a major concern, in that it is not accessible enough to attract an adequate volume of foreign medical patients.

Kim Hyung Jun posited, if the local government permits this venture to include foreign investors, how would this benefit Jeju residents – and would the residents therefore oppose it?

The lone supporter was Dr. John Linton, also known as In Yo-han, medical director of the International Clinic at Yonsei's Severance Hospital.

Linton suggested that rather than identifying this as a form of tourism, the superiority of Korean medical care and technology should be emphasized.

While acknowledging the problems of transit accessibility and the national insurance system which requires doctors to sacrifice quality care for quantity of patients, he stressed the need to target wisely, position, and protect Jeju's interests.

A lack of cross-cultural understanding, in particular regarding health practices and beliefs, was not mentioned by any panelist but represents further concern.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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