South Korea Medical Tourism: The complete set

December 3, 2007

The 10-part medical tourism diary from my trip to South Korea last week is now available on MedTripInfo. Here’s a summary.
Korea has a lot going for it as a medical tourism destination:

  • A strong physical and communications infrastructure: travel by train is fast and relatively inexpensive, much better than the US. The telecommunications infrastructure is also superior, with widespread internet access and ubiquitous cell phone coverage with advanced services. Hotels (at least where I stayed) feature great facilities and service
  • A well-established medical system, with an extensive system of medical schools and university hospitals and many physicians who have trained and practiced overseas, especially in the US.
  • A caring, compassionate attitude among the people
  • The rule of law, a safe physical environment
  • Familiarity with Americans as a result of the long-standing military presence
  • A competitive cost structure
  • A strong work ethic and drive toward excellence
  • Good connections from the US, relative to some other countries in Asia

There are some areas that the country will need to develop further to establish a thriving medical tourism industry

  • Increased fluency in English. This was an issue more or less everywhere we went.
  • Establishment of coordination mechanisms for international patients. As of now the efforts are somewhat informal, as you might expect given the volumes
  • Development of sufficient excess or dedicated capacity to handle an influx of patients. Many of the hospitals we saw were as full as busy American hospitals. While they may be willing to make special arrangements to free up space for Americans or other foreign patients, the better medical tourism coordinators from the US will see that as a red flag. The last thing they want to do is displace Korean patients
  • Development of a clear segmentation and positioning strategy. Korea is a low-cost country compared with the US, but not with India and China. In the long run, the way to compete is on quality and service, not price. The sooner Korea starts down that road in medical tourism the better
  • Increased awareness and brand building of Korea as a medical tourism destination. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought of Korea as a potential medical tourist market until Josef Woodman mentioned his trip there

In summary, Korea has strong potential in medical tourism. In the near term the opportunity may be best exploited by attracting Korean Americans living on the West Coast of the US. As the hospitals increase their preparedness to serve the US market as described above they should also try to tie their brand building into the ascendancy of Korean technology companies. For example, Hyundai has quickly gone from laughingstock to a strong player in the US market as its quality and styling have improved. Samsung TVs are becoming widely known, as are LG phones. If the Korean medical system can tie in to that positioning, and at the same time develop a reputation for caring and compassionate service, the country will do very well.

The diary entries can be accessed as follows:

I also did a podcast interview with James Bae of the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion, which I posted on the Health Business Blog as well.

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