The Korea Times 칼럼

Medical Tourism (2010년 2월 27일)

divicom 2010. 2. 28. 17:33

The government has designated the period from 2010 through 2012 as ``Visit Korea" years and has been trying to promote medical tourism as a way of increasing its number of foreign visitors, allowing hospitals to market and pay commissions to agencies to bring in more patients.

Still, there is a hindrance to such efforts, The Korea Times reported twice last week, because foreign patients are ``victimized," paying ``exceedingly inflated" prices for their treatment at Korean hospitals. In a separate report, the KT also said Korea's major hospitals charged medical tourists 2.5 to 3 times more than locals.

Both reports ended with worrisome comments that if these practices are left unchecked, the government's plan to attract more than 200,000 medical tourists, or more than 10 times the current figure, in 2013 will be jeopardized.

While patriotic worries are commendable, I wonder if a failure to draw medical tourists is something we should feel truly regrettable. I, for one, want to see failure more than success. Why? First, I don't think it is decent to make money from someone's problems. Second, we already have too many patients at home and will have even more if the present circumstances prevail.

Korea happens to be the most rapidly aging nation in the world. Senior citizens of 65 years of age or older accounted for 7 percent of the total population in 2000 and the figure is expected to double in a dozen years. The aging of the population inevitably requires greater medical services. Korea is also busy dealing with cancer, which kills one in every four Koreans. Every year, 110,000 people are newly diagnosed as having cancer. In a word, Korean doctors' hands are full.

According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Health Data for 2009, the number of doctors per 1,000 people was 1.7 in Korea in 2007, the second lowest among OECD countries. The OECD average was 3.1. These figures explain why Koreans have to wait well over 30 minutes to see a medical specialist at a general hospital even after making reservations. They have to wait longer when the specialist is seeing a foreign patient who doesn't know how hectic the doctor's schedule is.

Common sense tells that it is best for one to get treatment in one's own country if the quality of medical service there is proper. one can explain the ailment better in one's own language and the healing process is easier in familiar weather and surroundings. one won't need an interpreter or go through complicated procedures, which are usually needed in foreign hospitals and which will undoubtedly add to the bills. By having one's illness treated at home, one may be doing a favor to the patients of a foreign country where doctors are always in short supply.

Those who ask why Koreans pay less than foreigners at hospitals here may need to understand the National Health Insurance System. Under the compulsory system enforced in 1977, all Koreans, except for those on Medical Aid, have to pay monthly insurance fees whether they go to hospitals or not. The rate is 5.33 percent of the monthly wage ― the employer and the employee share the amount and pay 2.665 percent each.

For the self-employed and others, the monthly fee is set in proportion to their income and wealth. Sometimes, you pay the fee for years without a single hospital visit. If you are very rich and healthy, you may feel sort of exploited. It, however, is good to know that by paying the fee, you are helping people in distress: the unused money goes to the National Health Insurance Corporation and is used for Medical Aid for the poor and for those who are ill. If you go to a general hospital with an illness, you pay half the bill and the corporation pays the other half.

The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs will hold the ``Global Healthcare & Medical Tourism Conference" in April with some 1,000 people attending from over 25 countries, including healthcare providers, insurance companies and travel agencies. Minister Jeon Jae-hee has stated that the meeting will prove that the Korean government and health care providers are ready to "better serve" foreign patients.

I, too, hope Korean doctors will "better serve" foreign patients ― those who are from less developed countries and can't get sophisticated treatment at home, not rich medical tourists.


정부는 올해부터 2012년까지를 '한국방문의 해'로 정하고 대통령 부인 김윤옥 여사를 명예위원장으로 하는 한국방문의 해 위원회도 구성했습니다. 외국 관광객을 늘리기 위한 방도로 소위 '의료 관광'을 요란하게 홍보하고 있지만 저는 '의료 관광'을 좋아하지 않습니다. 우리나라에도 병과 싸우는 국민이 많은데 외국환자까지 수입해야 하나, 남의 고통을 이용해 돈을 버는 게 옳은가, 우리나라처럼 국민 일인당 의사 수가 적은 나라에 다수의 외국 환자가 유입되면 우리나라 환자가 받는 의료서비스에 바람직하지 않은 영향을 주게 되지 않을까 하는 우려 때문입니다. 글의 말미에서 보듯, 보건복지가족부의 전재희 장관은 4월에 열리는 의료 관광 회의를 통해 한국이 '외국인 환자들'을 위해 일할 준비가 되어 있음을 세계에 알릴 거라고 합니다. '외국인 환자들'에게 잘하는 건 좋지만 그 외국인들이 돈 많은 '의료 관광객들'이 아니고, 의료수준 낮은 저개발국의 외국인들이길 바랍니다.