Gangnam clinics are open for business
Nguyen Hai Hang, from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, didn’t come to Korea to visit its ancient temples, nor is she here for the country’s popular upscale shopping centers.
Nguyen paid a visit to Gangnam, Seoul last year to get a new nose. More specifically, to get hers redone.
“It’s quite simple, really. When I looked into getting some work done in Japan and a few other places, I found that Korea offered the same quality care for much cheaper prices,” said Nguyen, adding that plastic surgery is becoming more common in Vietnam, but the country lacks Korea’s expert clinics and reasonable prices.
She’s far from the only one seeking out Korea’s medical services and is apart of what is called “medical tourism,” which is defined as the international travel of patients primarily to obtain health care.
Korea is one of the top destinations in Asia, having pulled in $150 million in 2010 out of the $4 billion Asian market — good enough for fourth place. The top three are Thailand ($900 million), India ($330 million) and Singapore ($300 million). Those countries also saw 1.28 million patients, 630,000 and 180,000, respectively, while Korea took in 85,000 in the same year.
Gangnam in particular has seen an explosion in medical tourism dollars over the last few years.
In 2010, 19,000 foreign patients from overseas walked through the doors of a medical facility in Gangnam. By the end of 2011, that number is estimated to have surpassed 30,000, according to the Gangnam-gu Office. In dollar amounts, those foreign patients spent $60 million in 2009, $70 million in 2010 and an estimated $110 million last year.
In fact, it’s such big business that the government has a special unit to promote medical tourism and assist clinics — especially smaller ones — in dealing with the influx of foreign customers.
The office supports clinics in three areas. When there is a medical expo overseas, it covers all the costs for a clinic to attend, including travel and hotel expenses. They also cover half the cost of translating websites into English, Chinese and Japanese.
Moreover, the Gangnam Medical Tourism Association has 65 medical coordinators that help patients communicate with the hospital staff.
About 200 clinics take advantage of these services.
The Gangnam-gu Office has been busy promoting medical tourism to foreigners in Korea and overseas. Gangnam — known for its wealth and private schools — is actually home to the highest concentration of hospitals and clinics in Korea. All told, there were approximately 2,300 of them in 2011.
The most popular medical services sought by foreigners are plastic surgery and general medical exams. The top four sources of patients are, in order, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
“Medical services are very cost effective in Korea. I know that compared to the U.S., it is much cheaper here,” said a representative of the Gangnam-gu Office.
“Secondly, through the Korean Wave, Korean plastic surgery is known the world over as being the best.” He added that a nose job is about three times more expensive in the U.S. than it is in Korea.
Already popular amongst developed countries, the Medical Tourism Team is particularly focused on increasing the number of patients from Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Mongolia.
The Gangnam-gu Office spent 500 million won on medical tourism promotion in 2011.
“These countries are relatively close — a six-hour flight. Also, their medical technology is not as developed as ours, so it’s more effective and safer for them to come here. We’re targeting their high-income bracket in particular.” Patients from different countries have particular demands. Ninety percent of Chinese visitors are geared toward plastic surgery, according to the representative; Japanese customers are more geared toward dermatology and oriental medicine; northern Asian countries prefer OB/GYN treatment; Americans mostly come to Korea for physical exams and chronic disease treatment.
“The Korean standard of beauty is spreading across Asia. It also makes more sense logistically to visit Korea rather than Europe. For Russian or Kazak people, it’s just cheaper and faster to come to Korea,” said the representative. “Since retuning to Ho Chi Mihn City, I’ve received so many compliments,” said Nguyen. “I couldn’t be happier.”