Medical tourism, an industry that had been growing year by year, was one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic. The Ministry of Health and Welfare revealed on April 24 that in 2019 almost half a million medical tourists received treatment in Korea. Due to the pandemic, the number dropped significantly to just 145,842 in 2021.
Nonetheless, the industry is coming back to life thanks to the nation’s reputation as a cultural and technological powerhouse and its successful response to the pandemic. Last year 248,110 medical tourists from 192 countries underwent treatment in Korea, a rise of around 70 percent.
Korea’s management of the pandemic was praised worldwide; its success was attributed to extensive testing, advanced technology, transparency and a vigilant population. This reputation, coupled with the waning of the pandemic and the growing global influence of hallyu (the Korea wave), has helped the medical tourism industry get back on its feet.
According to Medical Tourism Korea, an arm of the Korean Tourism Organization, “The biggest merit of Korean medical tours is the convergence of medicine and IT.”
“The quality of transplants, robotic surgeries and endoscopic operations at general hospitals in Korea is at the highest level among medical tourist destinations. In particular, Korea's cancer survival rate boasts a world-class standard: more than double the OECD average. In addition, our medical treatments and services are more affordable than in other advanced countries, even though the technologies used are the same. Wellness tourist attractions and other infrastructure related to medical tourism is also well established here,” said Mrs. Nam, a representative of the Medical Tourism Information Center.
Patients from the United States and China accounted for a third of last year’s visitors while Japanese and Thai patients made up 8.8 and 8.2 percent of the total, respectively. One in four of the visitors underwent care through integrated internal medicine while plastic surgery accounted for 15.8 percent and dermatology 12.3 percent, according to the ministry. Other major fields include obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics and traditional Korean medicine.
Kateryna Vynogradenko, manager and medical coordinator of Gangnam-based medical tourism operator, Medictel, confirmed that the industry has rebounded. “In May 2022, the Korean government introduced the K-ETA system and allowed people who had not received a vaccination to enter. After that, the number of visits to Korea by patients who could not come during the pandemic began to increase significantly,” she said.
Unique to the Peninsula’s medical tourism experience are the traditional Korean health, wellness and medicinal offerings of organizations such as the Seoul K-Medi Center in the northeast of Seoul. With traditional hanok features incorporated into its architecture, the multipurpose health and culture complex lies in the heart of Yangnyeongsi Market, a 250,000 square meter traditional medicine district of more than 1,000 clinics, pharmacies and vendors – a health hub and cultural gem.
Wellness tourism is on the rise with growth projected at 21 percent annually, according to the Global Wellness Institute. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has been promoting and investing in the sector in line with President Yoon Suk Yeol’s 110 national tasks, one of which is developing wellness tourism.
For the majority of medical tourists, Seoul is the destination of choice. It possesses more than 1,700 medical centers that cater to international patients; provides convenient access to specialist services, traditional experiences, shopping and entertainment; and is just an hour from Incheon International Airport.
Seoul National University Hospital, the nation’s leading public health institute provides services in English, Chinese, Mongolian and Spanish. The hospital's international healthcare center treats more than 30,000 patients from over 80 countries annually and has a history stretching back to the Joseon era.
“Medical care in South Korea is efficient, affordable and highly advanced,” said Vynogradenko. However, medical expenses in Korea have risen by 150 percent since the pandemic, driven up by global inflation and the increased demand for medical services from foreign patients, according to Vynogradenko.
In 2009, Korean medical institutes were officially allowed to accept foreign patients. In that year, 60,201 foreign patients were provided healthcare here.