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[Column] Boasting of Korean Health Care Overseas, While Killing the Sprouts at HomeKim Chul-joong's Differential Diagnosis
  • By Kim Chul-joong Columnist
  • Published 2016.12.20 12:37
  • Updated 2017.08.30 09:21
  • comments 0

The recent performance by South Korean hospitals in attracting foreign patients is outstanding. The number of foreign patients visiting Korean hospitals has exceeded 150,000 and doctors from a number of countries are coming to learn how we do it. Three thousand infertile couples from Russia board planes every year to get pregnant in Korea and 250 doctors from the Moscow City Hospital say they will personally pay to come and learn South Korean health care. Saudi Arabia also says it will send a hundred doctors every year to train in South Korea.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Health Industry Development Institute frequently organizes overseas marketing events promoting South Korea's health care and the excellence of our medical technology. A closer look reveals something in common between the list of medical technologies that the government boasts of and the list of services that foreign patients mostly seek. Ironically, almost all tend to be advanced medical technologies categorized under the uninsured items that the National Health Insurance does not support. Abroad, the government promotes state-of-the-art robotic surgery and advanced radiotherapy equipment. There is no need to mention cosmetic surgery, facelifts and other surgical procedures on the skin for cosmetic purposes. South Korea has such highly advanced medical technology, so send your patients here.

Isn't this a little funny? What is happening inside? It sounds as if the government is trying to include such treatment into the main system, since South Korean hospitals are enjoying excess profits from this business. Politicians all promise to make health care cheaper, since the patient has to shoulder an expensive burden. In other words, the government is telling hospitals to continue to earn profits through uninsured procedures targeting foreign patients, while telling Korean patients that they shouldn’t have to pay for such services.

Uninsured procedures and treatments made a great contribution to the high-speed development of Korea's medical technology. Since the government set the price of treatments and surgeries so low that they failed to cover the costs, doctors and hospitals constantly developed uninsured services. The government turned a blind eye. Hospitals competed by taking advantage of such a situation, purchasing high-tech equipment and bringing in highly qualified staff. As a result, even doctors from Japan, a country advanced in the medical profession, visit Korean hospitals to learn highly advanced medical skills. American patients seek us out and Russian patients arrive at Incheon International Airport.

But now the government is saying that the uninsured items are a problem. The development of health care in Korea has been a series of contradictions so far, and frankly, I wonder if our health care could have made such progress without uninsured items. Nevertheless, the government and politicians are threatening hospitals by claiming that they will eliminate uninsured services and standardize health care at a lower level. They pour out low-cost policies as if Korean hospitals are something that the government can control as it sees fit. Of course, it is true that patients shoulder a heavy burden due to uninsured treatment. Then where shall we find the power to drive South Korea's health care? Should we put off the development of Korea's health care for now in order to achieve universal welfare? The fruits of the development in medical technology achieved through uninsured services will not last a decade in the current state.

Yet South Korean hospitals are too quiet. Despite that they have been the biggest contributors in exporting health care, something that the government takes pride in, they remain quiet, as if they have committed some kind of sin. Of course, universal welfare is the general trend now. We cannot go against this flow. But a couple of questions I would like to emphasize are why have South Korean hospitals failed to receive a reasonable price for their hard work and accomplishments, and why are they not raising their voices about that?

Who will develop Korea's health care, how and with what? Is a uniform health care system with no alternatives our only future? The United States manages to survive while spending more than 15% of their GDP on health care, because the health care industry creates the world's highest added value.

South Korea's health care will have to continue to develop various medical technologies and recognize the value of the health care industry to achieve steady growth. More foreign patients should visit South Korea and hospitals should be major export items. In that context, I would like to use former U.S. President Clinton's campaign slogan to describe the situation of South Korean hospitals. The sustainable development of Korea's health care, stupid!


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Kim Chul-joong is a radiologist and medical correspondent for Chosun Ilbo. He also served as the former president at the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).

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