SEOUL – Hospitals will be allowed directly to seek foreign patients from May as part of South Korea’s efforts to become Asia’s new medical tourism hub, officials said Tuesday.
“We expect about KRW300 billion ($221 million) in revenue this year in this sector, which will grow fast thanks to our aggressive overseas marketing to be legalized this week,” said Lee Young-ho, a marketing director of the Global Healthcare Business Center.
The center, which is controlled by the health ministry, is forming a network of hospitals and travel agencies which will be officially allowed to seek patients abroad under a law which takes effect Friday.
“We expect more than 40 local travel agencies and hundreds of hospitals and clinics to apply for state licenses,” Lee said.
He forecast that about 50,000 foreigners would visit South Korea for treatment this year compared to 27,480 in 2008.
“In 2013 about 200,000 foreign patients are expected to come,” Lee said, adding foreign residents are excluded from the data.
Hospitals are currently barred from directly advertising for patients or accepting them through dedicated referral services.
U.S. citizens accounted for 34% of total overseas patients last year, but the center hopes to attract more patients from Russia, Mongolia and China this year.
Lee said South Korea could surpass Singapore and Thailand to become Asia’s new medical tourism hub in five years, citing a pool of skilled surgeons. The government has eased regulations on visa issuance for overseas patients.
Plastic surgery cornered about 4% of foreign patients treated by clinics associated only with the center last year. But many plastic surgeons did not report foreign patients.