Medical and Cosmetic Surgery Tourism in South Korea
Medical tourism is now a $40 billion market worldwide and is expanding at the rate of 25% per annum. For Californians, in recent years this has commonly been associated with patients traveling to Thailand, Singapore or India, where a range of treatment such as coronary artery bypass, orthopaedic surgery, rhinoplasty, face-lifts or gender reassignment surgery can be obtained with a saving from 65-90% on the cost of similar surgery back home. Many US patients take this option when they find that their medical insurance does not cover the procedure they require. South Korea has entered this market with the aim of becoming not only one of the major destinations for medical tourism, but to offer a service with government support that complies with internationally accepted standards of practice and care, and which is free from the negative associations often attached to medical tourism.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, numbers of tourists visiting the country for cosmetic surgery has increased by 500% since 2009, with over fifteen thousand patients being treated over the last year; revenue from the entire medical tourism sector in 2012 amounted to $453 million, an increase of 300% over the same five year period. South Korean Plastic surgery trips cost an average of $14,000, which includes air fare, accommodation and airport pick-ups. Clinics provide a range of special services such as multi-lingual websites, email, video consultations and medical interpreters. Most clinics are situated in the affluent Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, which this year opened a visitor center to help patients choose an accredited hospital. The government has taken measures to crack down on hospitals that work with unregistered tourist agencies, and the state-run Human Resources Development Service of Korea offers an examination for qualification as a specialized medical tour operator. The government is actively promoting the industry abroad with a target of creating 20,000 jobs over the next four years.
The Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) has been designated by the government to handle the majority of the promotional work for Korean medical tourism. From 2009, visitors coming to Korea for medical treatment have been able to take advantage of a special visa for a period of 3 months or a year. The KTO advises that patients obtain a written diagnosis and referral from their family doctor, which will provide invaluable information on all their medical needs to the doctors in Korea. Open communication between the patient, family doctor, medical coordinator and South Korean doctors is routine, and patients’ treatment records and aftercare recommendations are sent back to their family doctor. South Korea’s healthcare system is amongst the best in the world, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare works closely with healthcare providers to enforce public health and safety policies. South Korean hospitals are technically advanced in the use of both state-of-the-art clinical technology and management systems, and cutting edge medical procedures; they also maintain a broad approach to therapy that includes traditional eastern practices such as acupuncture and herbal treatments. Recent research by Ipsos puts South Korea’s healthcare system at the top of the league table in terms of improvement in service over the past five years.
Perfecting cosmetic surgery
In a 2011 poll by Seoul city government, 32% of respondents said they would be willing to undergo plastic surgery to improve their looks – a rise of 21.5% since 2009. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of procedures undertaken in 2011 numbered more than 13 for every 1,000 people, which is the highest rate for any country in the world. Hundreds of cosmetic surgery clinics cluster around the Gangnam subway stations in the so-called beauty belt, where Seoul’s reputation as the best place in the world for plastic surgery grows at a pace. Business has never been so good. Kim Byung, who owns BK Plastic Surgery, says that there is a staggering demand for plastic surgery among Koreans, who now flood into the area alongside increasing numbers of patients from around the world. He employs six surgeons and thirty interpreters, who speak – amongst other languages – Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and English. The international nature of the plastic surgery business and the importance of good communication mean that the presence of qualified and accredited specialist medical interpreters is paramount.
Patients must make their own decisions about treatment, and these need to be based on informed advice given by the doctor. This is the first principal of good medical practice that can break down when going abroad for procedures and patient and doctor do not properly understand each other. Approximations will not do. In the best of circumstances, doctors can have difficulty understanding a patient who is sick, injured or – in the case of consultations about cosmetic surgery – distressed about their problem or anxious about the surgical procedures. The particulars of a patient’s concerns and the doctor’s medical judgments must be equally clear to both as if they shared the same mother tongue.
Doctors should give advice only; there should be no coercion. The patient should be free to reject whatever he says, even if medically it might not be the best decision. Medical interpreters must reflect this not only in the content of their translations but in the tone of voice and manner with which they pass it on to the patient or doctor, who must both be as comfortable with the interpreter as with each other. The ideal consultation is an open and relaxed discussion of a problem where all participants feel at ease.
Looking to the future
KTO’s Medical Tourism Center’s Deputy Director Hyungtaek Lim said that South Korea’s expertise makes it more than capable of meeting the rising demand. ‘Korea has one of the most specialized industries in the world, with highly advanced technologies. In addition, doctors must undergo a rigorous eleven year training period before they are able to specialize.’ Korean doctors are revered for their skills, which result in shorter surgery and recovery times – ideal for patients who are on short-term visits. The quality of medical services and technology is a major reason why patients choose to come to South Korea.
LA Translation and Interpretation has a subsidiary company Korean Medical Travel Co., Inc. to provide 1-stop service for Medical and Cosmetic Tourism in South Korea. We provide certified Korean medical interpreters and refer you to the top physicians in Korea as well as plan great trips. For more info, call 1-866-327-1004.