by CHOE SANG-HUN | NYTimes.com
In this city's Apgujeong district, famous for its high-end boutiques and plastic surgeons, tourist buses unload Chinese and Japanese visitors looking for a nip and tuck as part of their packaged tour.
On the resort island of Jeju, the government is building Health Care Town, a 370-acre complex of medical clinics and upscale apartments surrounded by 18-hole golf courses and scenic beaches, to lure foreigners in need of medical care.
West of Seoul, on the muddy beaches of Inchon where American troops splashed ashore 58 years ago to fight in the Korean War, a new steel-and-glass town is rising to attract foreign visitors, including medical tourists.
South Korea has joined Thailand, Singapore, India and other Asian nations in the lucrative business of medical tourism. Heart bypasses, spinal surgery, hip-joint replacements, cosmetic surgery — procedures that may cost tens of thousands of dollars in the United States — can often be done for one-third or even one-tenth of the cost in Asia, with much shorter waiting times and by specialists often trained in the West.
Americans fleeing the high cost of medicine at home have spurred the trend. Last year, 750,000 Americans sought cheaper treatment abroad, a figure projected to reach 6 million by 2010, according to a recent study by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, a consultancy. Asian nations are also wooing wealthy Middle Eastern patients who have found it more difficult to get a visa to enter the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The number of foreigners coming to South Korea for medical care is still a fraction of those getting treatment in India, Thailand and Singapore, industry officials said. But clinics and the South Korean government are trying hard to attract these tourists, who not only bring in money for cash-strapped hospitals but also help the economy by staying on to shop and sightsee after their procedure is over.
The government has revised immigration rules to allow foreign patients and their families to get long-term medical visas and altered laws to permit local hospitals to form joint ventures with foreign hospitals in some cases.
When Hassan and Fatima Al-Abdulla of Qatar arrived in Seoul in October, they found a car and an English-speaking nurse waiting at the airport.
Soon they were checking into the Wooridul Spine Hospital so Ms. Abdulla could have surgery for her chronic back and leg pain.
Mr. Abdulla found his wife's hospital room — furnished with a television, broadband Internet access, private bathroom, sofas and an extra bed — so comfortable that he decided to stay with her rather than go to a hotel.
Ms. Abdulla had all her pre-surgical tests the day she arrived. The next day, she was on an operating table.
"I feel very good," she said five days after her surgery. "I can walk and shop now."
Wooridul Spine Hospital said it expected to draw about 1,000 foreign patients and $1 million in revenue from their treatments in 2008, its third year of wooing foreigners. It said its patients hailed from 47 countries, with about a third from the United States.
Wooridul plans to build a hospital branch, apartments, a concert hall and an art museum on the Jeju island as part of its medical tourism offerings, in addition to the golf course it has already built, said Lee Mi-jeong, a Wooridul spokeswoman.
"We believe this is a major future industry for our island," said Kim Kyung-taeg, head of the government-run Jeju Development Center. "The town will specialize in medical checkups, long-term convalescence and procedures Korean doctors do well and cheaply, such as plastic surgery and dentistry."
No government records are available on how many medical tourists come to South Korea. But a survey of 29 hospitals showed that they treated 38,822 uninsured foreign patients — excluding certain categories like long-term Korean expatriates — between January and August, compared with 15,680 in 2007, according to the government-financed Korea Health Industry Development Institute.
It said 25 percent of those patients were from the United States, and 10 percent each were from China and Japan.
Medical fees are strictly controlled by the government as part of a national health insurance program, but hospitals like Wooridul can negotiate fees with foreign patients without interference from insurance authorities.
Gregory Kellstrom, a civilian forklift operator at the American military base in Seoul, decided to go to Wooridul recently to get spinal scans and medication for his back and hip problems instead of returning to the United States.
"For me personally, this is not about money," said Mr. Kellstrom, 42, who paid out of his own pocket but planned to apply for reimbursement from his American insurer.
"In the States, it will probably take easily six months just to get the treatment I have here in one day," he said.
Baialinova Dariakul, 49, the wife of a wealthy businessman in Kyrgyzstan, said she came to Wooridul for treatment for her spinal tumor because it was unavailable at home. Fumiko Yamada, 75, a Tokyo resident who recently had a back operation at Wooridul, said she would have had to wait years to get an appointment with a leading Japanese surgeon who performs the same operation.
Some Koreans fear that social inequality will grow if medical resources and skilled workers migrate from public health care to better-paying jobs that cater to foreigners, said Dr. Yoon Dae-hyun, a psychiatrist at the Healthcare System Gangnam Center at Seoul National University Hospital. But he added that the effort to attract foreigners could inspire more local hospitals to upgrade their services.
"There isn't much of a gap anymore between the good hospitals in Asia and the United States," he said.
His center plans to open a marketing office in Los Angeles, and hopes to attract medical tourists from the pool of two million Korean-Americans. Foreigners who can document Korean ancestry can qualify for the South Korean national health insurance.
Sally Im, a Korean-American from Honolulu, recently traveled to Wooridul for back surgery. After her husband paid two months' worth of premiums — about $90 — on their arrival, a portion of Ms. Im's medical bill was covered by the South Korean government. The couple ended up spending $3,200, rather than the $30,000 that her operation would have cost in the United States, Wooridul said.
Not everyone in South Korea is happy about such arrangements, fearing that ethnic Koreans from abroad could become a drag on the national insurance coffers. There is talk of limiting benefits to long-term residents.
The Ims, meanwhile, were happy that they had an alternative to the American medical system.
"We met a good doctor and had good surgery," said Ms. Im's husband, Stan. "We feel very lucky."