Medical tourism interview with James Bae of the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion (transcript)

This is a transcript of my recent podcast interview with James Bae conducted during my trip to Korea.

David Williams: This is David Williams, CEO of MedTripInfo. I’m traveling at 300 k/hr on the KTX high speed train between Pusan and Seoul in South Korea, sitting next to James Bae from the Council for Korean Medicine Overseas Promotion (CKMP).

James, thanks for joining me today.

James Bae
: My pleasure.

David: James, tell me what is the CKMP and why was it created?

James: Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion, the CKMP, is a council composed of 34 Korean hospitals and clinics, which are interested in attracting overseas patients to Korea. Then, the CKMP basically is created for the group marketing because most Korean hospitals do not have enough experience in international marketing. We decided to gather together into the group for marketing and promotion. Half of the budget is coming from government and another half is coming from hospitals and clinics.

David: Why is this being done now? Why wasn’t it done five years ago? Why didn’t you wait five years to do it?

James: Actually, we started to think about medical tourism from 2004, but we thought a lot what is the best way to do that. So, it took about two or three years for us to launch the Council. Finally, we started to work for promotion from March, 2007. So, it took time for us to prepare.

David: What are the sort of activities that are being done as part of CKMP?

James: Most are promotional activities. We published a booklet and we developed a website of Korean medicine and we also participated in international conferences together. Like this time, when we invited business leaders from international communities to see where the Korean hospitals and clinics are now.

David: So, we’re on what you’re calling a FAM tour. What does FAM stands for and what is the objective of this type of tour?

James: FAM means familiarization tour. Basically, it’s like when the Korea Tourism Organization invites travel agencies from other countries and they show them around the tourism attractions. We borrowed the concept of the tourism FAM tour. We started to invite business leaders for international medical travel and then showed them the Korean hospitals and clinics.

David: Who has been on the tours before? Is it often people from the United States? Has it been people from other countries? Is it all journalists and business people?

James: We had our first FAM tour in September. At that time, we invited about 20 people from the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, and Singapore. The writer from the United States, Josef Woodman came to Korea and we had professors from universities like Dr. Mary Ann Hoss from Washington University. We had insurance companies, too, like World Access come to see the hospitals. After that, World Access has started to consider working with Korean hospitals.

This is the second FAM tour. We have you and we have Blue Cross Blue Shield this time and we have Medical Tours International, Stephanie Sulger joining the second FAM tour. Next month we have 10 Chinese people and two or three Japanese to participate in our FAM tour.

David: What are some of the lessons that people learned from the first FAM tour? What are some of the impressions that they took away from Korea? What are some of the things that you learned from them?

James: We talked a lot about the FAM tour. Basically, they were surprised because they had lower expectations about Korean medicine. But, after they looked around the Korean hospitals and the infrastructure of the city, they were very impressed, and because government supports this business, they told me Korea will be a leading country in medical tourism in less than three years. Then, we learned from them how we should approach the marketing activities. We are considering now publishing a book for the United States population. Josef Woodman, for example, he recommended you, David Williams, and Stephanie for the second FAM tour. We have good network now. So, I hope this second FAM tour has the same followup.

David: You’ve talked about Korean medical tourism becoming a leader. Why do you think that you can become a leader? There are a lot of other countries out there that are also looking at medical tourism. How will you measure what it means to be a leader?

: I think Korean hospitals and clinics are differentiated from other countries like Thailand or the Philippines  I think their primary concern will be tourism rather than health care, but we are concentrating on the health care side. So, we provide very good quality of care, we want to treat people. Then secondarily, we have tourism attractions, but the medical techniques, I think we have a higher position than other Asian countries.

: James, what are the particular geographic markets that you expect to draw patients from? I assume it’s not just the United States since you’re hosting people from all over the world.

James: Our primary targets for now are China, Japan and the United States for geographic reasons. We are close to China and Japan; they are interested in cosmetic surgeries in Korea. From the United States, I think Korea has a very good advantage for the accessibility because there are lots of direct flights. It will take 12 to 15 hours for them to get to Korea. So, those three countries are the targets.

David: What sort of price advantage do you think you have compared to the United States? What’s the pricing in Korea like compared to other medical tourism destinations like Singapore or India or Philippines or other countries?

James: In general¬† our prices are 20 to 25% of the cost in the United States. So, it’s pretty affordable. Compared to Singapore, we are similar, but a little less than Singapore for cost. If you consider the international hospital in China, our price is a little cheaper.

David: Are there any particular specialties that you expect Korea to be particularly known for, or would it be sort of across the board all the various specialties?

James: There are several specialties we try to promote. One is the Health Screening part. As, David, you saw in the hospital, the most beautiful sight is that you have is the Health Screening Center. They have a very good, very efficient check up. Another specialty is cosmetic plastic surgery for Chinese and Japanese. Korea is very well known for those surgeries.

For lung cancer or stomach cancer, Korea has the highest success rate for the cure and treatment. Then, transplant, we have good success rates for transplant and dental care, too. If somebody is interested in complementary medicine, that’s another thing we can appeal to international communities.

David: When you think about having people come from the United States, is there a particular target market that you will be looking at? For example, there’s a large Korean American population; is that a group that you’re looking at specifically?

James: Korean Americans, we think we have to cover that population, we think they are our people. Of course, we have the target market of Korean Americans. Also, we have the uninsured people and then the self-insured companies. We also target those two.

David: Are there any particular barriers that need to be overcome in order for Korea to be a successful medical tourism destination?

James: I think one thing is the language barrier. Medical doctors and nurses can speak in English fluently, but when you travel around, there could be some kind of difficulty to communicate. But in terms of the patient treatment, there will be coordinator accompanying the patient. But still, we have a little language barrier.

David: James, what’s one thing that you’d like people to know about Korea –people who have never visited–¬† one misimpression that you’d like to correct or just one thing that if somebody’s asked about Korea that you’d like them to say?

James: Well, I’ve heard some American people think Korea is a very poor country, but actually it’s not, and somebody is worried about the war because of North Korea. But, if you’ll come to see, it’s very peaceful country and it’s very developed. So, you’ll be surprised if you see it, but I know some people have a bad impression.

David: I’ve been speaking today with James Bae of the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion while traveling on the KTX high speed train from Busan to Seoul.

James, thanks very much for your time today.

James: Thank you very much.

January 9, 2008

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