The global medical tourism market, which stood at $51.7 billion in 2015, is expected to grow to $143.8 billion in 2022. Also, the world's healthcare industry -- which encompasses pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and cosmetics － is estimated to grow from $1.9 trillion in 2016 to $2.4 trillion by 2021.
|Lee Minwon, Director General for Global Healthcare Bureau at the Ministry of Health and Welfare
All major countries have jumped into the rapidly expanding healthcare market and are waging a soundless war now. In Korea, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has been taking the lead in pitching for a global presence.
Director General Lee Minwon has been heading the ministry's Global Healthcare Bureau since its inception in 2016. Lee is a senior government official who has worked for the ministry for twenty three years. She emphasizes promoting 'Medical Korea' as a global brand.
Korea Biomedical Review met Director General Lee to hear about the direction and objective of Korea’s policy related to healthcare industry and medical tourism.
Question: Your position, director general for global healthcare, sounds a little unfamiliar. What are your primary duties?
Answer: In most cases, health ministries deal with regulatory issues. In Korea, too, the Ministry of Health and Welfare is mainly responsible for regulatory oversight of health and medical industries. Health issues resulting from population aging are gaining worldwide attention. People are becoming more interested in how to improve the quality of life. And that's why many countries are engaged in a competition to take the lead in the global market. In these circumstances, my primary duties are promoting health industries, not regulating it. I administer policies designed to help the country gain the upper hand in the competition with the brand of “Medical Korea”.
Q : Why do you think the Korean government has appointed director general for global healthcare?
A: Korean healthcare is now started to gain a global recognition for its quality and safety. My team was launched to build out on such recognition and further boost the confidence that the international community has shown in the Korean healthcare.
Q : Competing with advanced countries in the healthcare sector must be challenging. Aren’t you experiencing any difficulties going global?
A: The hardest part is that people in this sector don’t have much experience making a global presence. I remember watching Korea’s home appliance manufacturers fight uphill battles against global leaders in the late 1990s when I studied in the United States. But the situation has completely changed now. It didn't happen in a day. It happened because Korean businesses tried to build technology while conducting marketing campaigns for building up the brands of their products.
The medical community has a tendency to be cautious and conservative. What the government can do is helping them to accumulate successful experiences in the international arena.
Q : Now that you mentioned the importance of brand-building, what would be some of the strengths of “Medical Korea”?
A: World-class technology, efficient system, outstanding medical professionals and reasonable cost to name a few. India, Thailand, and other countries have recently begun to adopt aggressive pricing strategies. Still, Korea remains competitive thanks to its high quality services at a reasonable price.
Q : It is vital to winning the trust of foreign patients to attract them. What are some of the strategies the Korean government is adopting to raise their confidence in Korea's medical institutions?
A: The government legally binds medical institutions and facilitators to register to provide service for overseas patients. As of March 2018, a total of 3,122 facilities-1,709 hospitals and 1,413 medical travel agencies－finished registration.
According to the “Act on support for the overseas expansion of healthcare system and attraction of foreign patients,” the government accredits outstanding hospitals for foreign patients from among medical institutions registered with the government. I believe that the accreditation of excellent hospitals for international patients through strict evaluation process is also part of our commitment to keeping higher standards as well as to raising foreign medical tourists' trust in Korea's healthcare sector.
Q : Can you cite some countries from which patients visit Korea to receive medical services?
A: About 364,000 foreign patients visited Korea in 2016, up 23 percent from the previous year and the accumulative at 1.56 million since 2009. Most of them come from China, followed by the United States, Japan, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The numbers of visitors from Southeast Asia and the Middle East are also on the rise.
Statistics show that Chinese clients come here most for plastic surgery, followed by internal diseases, dermatology care, health screening and orthopedic surgery while Japanese travelers prefer dermatology. Most patients from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan visit to see internists. Vietnamese patients are here for internal diseases and obstetrics and gynecology care while Thais also choose to come here for plastic surgery. Arab patients fly to Korea mostly for internal diseases, followed by dermatology care and plastic surgery.
Q : Some believe that Korea's health policies are favorable to the medical tourism industry because they are against for-profit hospitals as compared to Singapore and other countries that allow for-profit institutions.
A: Most Korean hospitals treating foreign patients have tried to enhance the convenience and satisfaction of inbound international medical travelers with smooth communication. Most Korean hospitals aim to equally ensure the high standard of medical care for international patients and Korean locals.
Q : Aside from the high quality of healthcare service, what are factors that can satisfy health travelers visiting Korea?
A: I would say the efficiency of Korea's medical system. The waiting time is short and the appointment is quickly arranged. Many patients choose to fly to international destinations for medical care because they can't get treatment when they need it the most in their home countries, but they can get it in time in Korea.
Q : How can foreign patients get information about Medical Korea?
A: The best choice is to find information on the 'Visit Medical Korea' website. We also have medial tourism agencies matching international clients with Korean hospitals. Most of Korea's general hospitals have English web pages, which they will find useful.
Q : Do you have any aggressive public relations plans?
A: This is about health. It means people tend to believe word-of-mouth over online advertising. That's why we're trying to make sure foreign patients have good memories from their stay in Korea. The word-of-mouth comments by doctors from Southeast Asia and the Middle East also play a key role. That’s why we’re trying to invite more foreign health practitioners to Korea to participate in the training program provided by leading university hospitals.
Q : Do you believe expanding Korean medical institutions' global presence is as important as attracting international patients?
A: They are closely related. As we make more success stories in treating international patients, more opportunities open up to Korean medical institutions.
Q : How do you help them reach out to the global market?
A: We assign about 1 billion Korean Won a year to support their global initiatives. After reviewing project plans and conducting feasibility studies, we grant an amount of 30 million won to 100 million won (between $28,000 and $93,000) for each project.
Q : What is your long-term strategy to help Korea's health industry grow?
A: Mapping out policies based on accurate statistics is fundamental. Setting Korea's brand image as a 'reliable international destination for medical tourists' is important.
Once the international community has trust in Korea's healthcare system, it would be easy to win their confidence about Korean medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. This would help widen the nation’s global presence on the healthcare front and it will ultimately contribute to promoting Korea as Asia's healthcare hub.
Q : Any final comments as a ranking official responsible for policies governing the nation's healthcare sector internationally?
A: 'Medical Korea' is a brand with a strong fundamental — advanced technologies, well-made products, talented healthcare workforce, reliable medical services, and efficient system. I think the government's job is to promote it well. I never imagined 15 years ago that the Korean healthcare industry, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and cosmetics, would come this far. Such an industry-wise substantial growth was possible because of a solid foundation of Korea's medical system. We will stay committed to solidifying such fundamental and firmly rooting the brand 'Medical Korea' in the global healthcare market.
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