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Korea ill-prepared for the growing medical tourism industry < Policy < Article

The global medical tourism market is growing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which halted global travel for the past three years, slowly becoming an endemic.

Korea's strict regulations on medical tourism are hindering the industry's growth, despite the expanding global medical tourism market as the Covid-19 pandemic calms down.
Korea’s strict regulations on medical tourism are hindering the industry’s growth, despite the expanding global medical tourism market as the Covid-19 pandemic calms down.

Countries worldwide and the medical community are making all-out efforts to gain an edge in a market that is expected to grow double in size in the next three years.

According to Consultancy-me, a global consulting firm, the size of the global medical tourism market, which was $105 billion in 2019, shrank to $71 billion in 2020 due to Covid-19.

However, the market has since recovered gradually and reached $97 billion in 2022, and is expected to grow to $182 billion in 2025, as countries are actively trying to attract foreign patients with supporting policies.

Notably, Thailand plans to introduce a new medical visa that allows for a maximum stay of one year from 2023.

With the global medical tourism industry showing signs of entering a growth period, Korean medical experts stressed that Korea’s medical tourism industry must ease regulations if it intends to secure a firm position in the medical tourism market.

According to the 2020-2021 Medical Tourism Index (MTI) announced by the International Healthcare Research Center (IHRC) in July 2020, Korea ranked 14th out of 46 countries in medical tourism rankings.

MTI ranks Americans’ perceptions of 46 medical tourism destinations and surveyed with 41 criteria in three aspects — medical tourism industry, destination attractiveness, and medical service quality.

For Korea to become one of the top 10 destinations for medical tourism, industry watchers stressed that it is important to allow telemedicine for foreigners and ease requirements for medical tourism visas, while maintaining its world-class medical technology and low-cost competitiveness compared to developed countries.

In particular, industry officials stress that easing visa requirements for medical tourism is most important. Foreigners seeking treatment in Korea usually enter Korea with a C-3-3 visa (short-term medical tourist) or a G-1-10 visa (treatment and recuperation).

The government gives C-3-3 to foreign patients who wish to enter the country for medical treatment or recuperation at a Korean hospital. C-3-3 visa recipients must receive an invitation from the hospital they plan on receiving treatment, and the length of stay needs to be less than 90 days.

G-1-10 are given to foreign patients, their accompanying family members, and caregivers who wish to enter the country for the purpose of treatment or recuperation at a domestic medical institution without being invited by the host institution. Those that receive the G-1-10 visa can stay in Korea for up to a year.

According to industry sources, however, it has become nearly impossible to receive a C-3-3 visa or a G-1-10 visa recently.

“Korea tends to have a lot of patients from countries where medical infrastructure is not well established,” an industry watcher told Korea Biomedical Review, asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. “Even before Covid-19, it was not easy to obtain a medical tourist visa, but after Covid-19, it has become almost impossible.”

The industry watcher stressed this is mainly due to some foreigners exploiting the system.

“Some foreigners have exploited the system to enter Korea and disappear to work as illegal immigrants presumably,” the industry watcher said. “Most recently, 23 out of 126 Mongolians who visited Jeju Island in June for medical tourism disappeared after arriving in Korea.”

However, he said refusing to issue visas to prevent such exploitation was not the answer.

“Illegal immigrants who misuse medical tourism visas must be prevented by means other than restricting the issuance of medical tourism visas,” the watcher said. “If issuing medical tourism visas continues to be restricted, it will inevitably hurt Korea’s medical tourism industry.”

The Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) stressed that it is aware of the situation and will support revitalizing Korea’s medical tourism industry.

“From 2023, the medical tourism industry in many countries will recover to pre-pandemic levels thanks to increased vaccination and simplified entry policies,” said Lee Haeng-shin, the Director of the Department of Global Healthcare of KHIDI. “Now is the time to have extensive discussions on non-face-to-face treatment for foreign patients and medical tourism visa issues.”

KHIDI said that it would also provide other plans to attract foreign patients.

Such plans include operating a “Medical Korea” website, which will provide a one-stop service, such as medical tourism visa issuance requirements, notable medical institutions, and Korea’s health system information, for foreign patients wanting to visit Korea for medical tourism.

The website will support four languages — English, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.

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