Medical tourists in South Korea in 2018, by country of origin

The medical tourist is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a person who travels across international borders to receive some form of medical treatment, most commonly dental care, cosmetic surgery, and fertility treatments. Mainland Chinese made up the largest share of medical tourists to South Korea in 2018, around 31 percent of the total and increased by 19 percent when compared to the preceding year. Korea first permitted the foreign patients in 2009 and since then, more than 2.26 million international medical tourists came to Korea, with about 380 thousand in 2018 alone. Both the sum and 2018 figure are the highest ever. In 2018, medical tourists came from 190 countries and there were 69 countries from which at least one hundred tourists came.

Why is Korea so popular?

South Korea is a popular destination for medical tourism, only surpassed by the U.S. and Germany, according to a Korean survey of medical tourists in 2017. One reason is that Korea has modern and advanced medical facilities and staff. Korea also has a reputation for superior cosmetic surgeries and high-quality beauty products. Many foreigners visit Korea for cosmetic surgeries, and even more foreigners purchase Korean beauty products. In addition, many treatments are covered by the public health insurance system. This means even foreigners can receive treatment at low cost. For example, many Americans forego medical treatment because they cannot pay tens of thousands of U.S. dollars in fees. Unsurprisingly, Americans made up the second-largest share of medical tourists to Korea in 2018.

Korean public health insurance in the red

A problem with medical tourists is they put strain onto the Korean public health insurance system. For years, there were claims that insurance payments were too low compared to the medical expenses. Public health insurance was in the black since 2011, but this was because the average employer-insured employee paid twice as much as he or she benefited from insurance. The average monthly payment was around 113 thousand South Korean won (95 U.S. dollars) and the total revenue of the national health insurance in South Korea amounted to about 62.7 trillion South Korean won. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners are exacerbating the situation and the government is taking action. For example, foreigners living in Korea for more than six months are now required to register for public health insurance. Prior to 2019, registration was optional for foreigners and as a result, foreigners took advantage of insurance coverage without paying for it.

Distribution of foreign patients traveling to South Korea for medical treatment in 2018, by country of origin

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Statistics on "Health care in South Korea"

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