Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, record numbers of medical tourists from 190 countries visited South Korea. Even in 2020, over 117 thousand patients traveled to the country for medical reasons. Among them, Chinese patients accounted for 26.6 percent of the total, followed by the United States and Japan. A decade ago, the U.S. and Japan accounted for about half, but the nationality distribution of patients is becoming more and more diverse. In fact, the number of patients in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and northern countries, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is increasing. In contrast, patients from Middle Eastern countries, including the United Arab Emirates, slightly decreased recently.
The most visited medical department among foreign patients in Korea was the internal medicine department, followed by plastic surgery, and dermatology. The preferred medical treatments to receive in Korea differ from patients' region of origin. Patients from Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Thailand mostly visited Korea for cosmetic purposes such as plastic surgery and dermatology. With these patients wanting to look like Korean celebrities, this aligns with the impact of the Korean Wave on the tourism sector in Korea. On the other hand, many visitors from the United States, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan visited Korea for non-cosmetic treatment purposes, such as visiting an internal medicine practice or health checkup center.
Prior to the pandemic, more than half of the patients who visited South Korea for medical treatment also enjoyed its additional tourism offers. Most visitors simply enjoyed shopping or city tours, while others visited historical sites and enjoyed its nature and scenery. On average, visitors stayed in Korea for 41.4 days. The average length of stay among visitors from the United States was the longest at 138 days. Expenditure for medical tourists lay at an average of 6.8 thousand U.S. dollars, about half of which were medical fees. Overall, they were highly satisfied with the experience of medical services in Korea, and they were willing to revisit for medical treatment or recommend it to others.