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[Weekender] Traditional Korean medicine a game changer in medical tourism industry

Nov. 1, 2018 - 16:06 By Son Ji-hyoung
It has been a decade since South Korea started issuing short-term visas for foreigners seeking medical treatment here as part of measures to boost medical tourism.

Since then, the medical tourism market has expanded rapidly, with the number of annual foreign visitors for medical treatment here rising 52.2 percent in the four years through 2017 to some 321,600, according to data compiled by the Korea Health Industry Development Institute.

However, the number dropped by 11.7 percent on-year in 2017 due to a decline in incoming tourists because of diplomatic tensions with China over the deployment of a missile defense system in Korea.

In the midst of the relevant industries and local governments seeking to reach the goal of attracting over 1 million foreign patients by 2020, the appeal of Korean medicine is also rising.

Taking advantage of techniques and therapies based on its homegrown oriental medicine, Korea has a potential to ride on global alternative and contemporary medicine market expansion. According to Grand View Research, the global alternative medicine market value is projected to rise to $196.8 billion by 2025, from $40.3 billion in 2015.

Kim Ha-neul, director of International Medical Center of Jaseng Hospital, practices chuna manipulation to rebalance a foreign patient‘s musculoskeletal system. (Jaseng Hospital of Korean Medicine)
Korea houses some 14,100 hospitals practicing traditional Korean medicine, or nonsurgical integrated treatment, ranging from acupuncture to herbal therapy, moxibustion and cupping.

Patients from overseas paid over 12.9 billion won ($11.3 million) in medical fees in 2016, according to KHIDI. So far, a total of 22 Korean medicine institutions have advanced overseas in five countries -- the United States, Kazakhstan, China, Canada and Japan.

Moreover, domestic investment in research and development of oriental medicine has been on a steady rise. Korea invested 104.2 billion won in 2016, more than double that of 2009, data from the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine showed.

Underpinned by the efforts and coupled with government subsidies for oriental medicine clinics since 2014, the number of foreign patients who received traditional Korean therapy jumped 112.9 percent in four years until 2017 to some 20,300, data from KHIDI shows. The Korean medicine sector has also apparently remained unaffected by the Korea-China diplomatic row, with the number of foreign patients to Korean medicine clinics having climbed 12.9 percent in 2017 from a year ago.

As of 2016, Japanese patients accounted for nearly a quarter of all foreign patients to Korean medicine clinics, followed by those from China, the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, showed KHIDI’s latest research.

The trend here has been spearheaded by several powerhouses in the industry.

Jaseng Hospital of Korean Medicine is one such example. The hospital’s international facility attracted two-thirds of all international customers for the sector in Korea. The facility, located in southern Seoul, has provided interpretation services in seven languages, including English, Japanese, Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh.

Major players engaged with foreign patients also include Kwangdong Hospital of Traditional Korean Medicine and Wonkwang Univessity Iksan Korean Medicine Hospital.

Still, traditional medicine practitioners say they are held back by opposition from those in conventional medicine over the use of Western medical devices by Korean medicine practitioners. 

Moves to deregulate laws to permit traditional medicine practitioners’ use of devices such as X-ray and ultrasound machines, as well as chemical drugs made of natural ingredients, have been foiled by Korean Medical Association, an advocacy group of Korean doctors. KMA has argued that patients could be exposed to incorrect diagnoses by traditional medicine doctors in the case of such deregulation.

The government also scrapped a move to integrate separate certification systems for oriental and occidental doctors by 2030 in September, as the KMA walked away from the negotiating table.

But Kim Kye-jin, director of general affairs at the Association of Korean Medicine, argued that deregulation is crucial to enhance foreigners’ confidence in traditional medicine and foster homegrown techniques for integrated treatment.

“It will be hard to convince foreigners about a concept of traditional Korean medicine that comes without some sort of Western therapy,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “Therapies based on an integration of oriental and occidental medicines can be appealing to foreigners, but doctors here of the two sides have been engaged in a long battle.”

In order to better promote the traditional medicine, a separate pangovernmental effort targeting foreign residents in Korea should also take place, aside from current efforts by the Health Ministry to showcase the medicine in foreign countries, Kim added.

By Son Ji-hyoung