Medical Tourism in Korea: IVF for fertility, proton therapy for prostate cancer

So I was just reading about the increase in medical tourism in Korea. In 2008, 27,480 patients came from abroad. In 2009 it was 60,201. More patients came from the US than any other country:

USA = 13,976

Japan = 12,997

China = 4,725

Russia = 1,758

Canada = 984

The article specifically mentions a Russian coming for IVF treatment who succeeded in getting pregnant and an American who came for proton therapy that put his prostate cancer into remission. That proton therapy comes with an $80,000 price tag in America but cost half as much in Korea. The article did not mention plastic surgery but that’s a huge industry here in Korea so I’m sure that must be part of Korea’s medical tourism plan.

Korea has some ambitious goals for increasing the numbers of medical tourists who come visit. They hope to compete with Thailand and India (better quality) and Singapore (better price). The Korea Tourism Organization is running medical tourism centers which I believe are like tourist information offices but specifically for medical travel.

I know from experience that medical care is less expensive in Korea but the culture is different too (though they have some hospitals designed for foreigners that are probably more westernized). Anyway I once stayed in a hospital a few nights after having an infected sweat gland surgically removed. It had burst and I needed a drain or whatever they call it for a few days. The surgery was a few hundred bucks and the hospital was $20-30 a night. I’m told (by a US doctor) that the whole thing would have been over $10,000 in America but I paid less than $500.

One reason the hospital cost $30 a night is that you stay in a dorm room with 8 or 10 other patients. I could have paid about $300 a night for a private room but the dorm room was OK. I shared food and practiced my Korean with the guy across from me. There is no TV so the only sound was from family members visiting and it wasn’t bad in my experience. Also the nurses’ station was right across from the room and I don’t remember ever having a problem getting attention when I wanted it.

Hospitals in Korea don’t serve food (again the hospitals designed for foreigners are probably different) and family members are expected to keep their loved ones fed. It is possible to order hospital food but I didn’t see anyone in my room doing it. Speaking of family members, Korean culture is for family members to provide round-the-clock care for the sick. Every hospital bed had a cot underneath it. Family members sleep on the cot and when I told my wife she should sleep at home she was really surprised. I guess Korean culture says you stay with your husband when he’s in the hospital. I said, “Just visit me once in a while. I don’t want you sleeping on a cot.”

But the guy across from me, his wife slept over on that cot. They have curtains you can close to give families a little privacy and it seemed kind of nice – never bothered me anyway.

Also, people in hospitals are expected to walk around on their own if possible. They wander around the hallways with their IV stand in tow and the hospital will have some lounge-type areas. Sometimes I see people in hospital pajamas on my university campus – there are a few smaller hospitals nearby and the patients like to walk, get some air, whatever.

Anyway, medical tourism in Korea might be a good deal and a good health choice but it can also be an interesting cultural experience, depending on whether you go to a regular hospital or not.

Filed Under: Medical tourism

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