Foreign patients listen to a doctor at the Jaseng Center for Alternative Medicine in Seoul. Courtesy of Jaseng Center for Alternative Medicine
By Kim Tae-jong
Fathema Ibrahim Ali Al Ali from the United Arab Emirates believes she has been given a new life in Seoul thanks to a successful kidney transplant performed by Korean doctors.
The organ transplant for the 35-year-old woman was conducted at Asan Medical Center, and she has shown signs of a fast recovery in resuming her previous activities and even adding some new ones after going back home.
“As I’ve experienced highly advanced Korean medicine myself, I’ll definitely promote the art of Korean medicine along with Korean electronic devices when I return to my country,” she said.
A week after the operation on Feb. 1, she started eating normal meals and taking walks, ready to get back to a normal life. But it was a very long and risky journey for her to receive a transplanted kidney from her brother due to various contraindications.
Although she had been in the end-stages of a renal disease, she was not considered a candidate for surgery because of the high risk of rejection by her immune system.
For her, the risk was much higher because she has suffered from diabetes from an early age and relied on dialysis for a long time. She was rejected by a hospital in the United States for such reasons.
“I was deeply discouraged and disappointed when I was rejected,” she recalled. “But I wasn’t too worried because I heard that the Asan Medical Center is famous for its excellence in kidney transplantation.”
Satisfied with the operation results, she is planning to receive another operation for a pancreas transplant to cure her diabetes.
Korea _ top tourism destination
Ali Al Ali is one of many foreign patients who are coming to Korea for “medical tourism.”
She is the second patient to come here as part of an agreement between the health authorities of Korea and Abu Dhabi.
Under the pact, the oil-rich Arab nation can send their patients to four contracted local facilities _ Seoul National University and Seoul St. Mary’s hospitals, and Asan Medical and Samsung Medical centers.
Korea’s health ministry arranged the agreement between the hospitals and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, forecasting the economic benefits from the deal to reach 60 billion won ($52 million) a year.
“We hope medical tourism will help create a new Korean wave,” said Jung Ho-won, director of the ministry’s Health Industry Policy Division.
The ministry aims to attract over 150,000 foreign patients this year and 400,000 by 2018, which will be easily achieved at the current pace, he said.
The government has been making efforts over the past few years to develop medical tourism as one of its new growth engines, and is now slowly harvesting the fruits.
The ministry estimated that the total number of foreign patients who visited Korea for medical treatment surpassed 110,000 last year, up from 81,789 in 2010.
Korean wave in medicine
CNN.com has included Korea in its list of “hot destinations” for medical tourism, saying, “A high standard of care had made it a popular destination for Japanese patients, especially those looking for cosmetic surgery. Eyelid surgery, nose jobs, facelifts and skin-whitening are all popular procedures.”
It added that the nation’s emphasis on preventive care makes it possible for travelers to come here for comprehensive health screening, which is available at one fifth of the price of treatment in the United States.
But now a number of patients are coming here, attracted by specialties in various medical fields such as internal medicine, neurology, dentistry, orthopedics, pediatrics and neurosurgery.
A Russian woman in her early 30s said she was impressed by Korean medical expertise after she learned of her pregnancy by artificial insemination at Cheil General Hospital & Women’s Healthcare Center in central Seoul.
“There are of course hospitals in my country,” the woman said, who declined to be named. “But I heard that Korean medicine is much better, so I came here.”
The hospital said they had about 7,000 foreign patients last year from Russia, Mongolia, Japan and China.
“Many of them come here for artificial insemination, gynecological treatment and general health screenings,” Lee Chul-min, an official from the hospital, said.
The number of foreigners who want to experience Korean Oriental medicine is also increasing.
A Russian who declined to give his full name said it was like a “miracle” to be treated by Oriental medicine here.
“I had this pain in my waist for six months and later it got much worse to the point where I couldn’t even move my legs properly. I visited many doctors in my country but things didn’t get better,” he recalled. “But I learned about Korean Oriental medicine by chance and I came here to receive various treatment such as acupuncture for two weeks, and the pain has disappeared like a miracle.”
Song Min-a, an official at the Jaseng Center for Alternative Medicine, said foreign patients visiting the hospital are most fascinated by the fact that they can be treated without surgery.
“Foreign patients are satisfied with treatments that do not involve surgery,” she said.
The government has been supporting the globalization of Korean medical institutions under the catchphrase “Medical Korea,” the brand campaign to promote the country’s advanced services abroad.
To boost the emerging industry, the government and other related parties have introduced various programs and initiatives such as the issuance of medical treatment visas, operation of an around-the-clock medical call center as well as one-stop medical tourism service centers.
According to the Ministry of Justice, a total of 8,259 visas for medical tourism were issued _ 3,999 to Russians, 1,757 to Chinese and 1,653 to Mongolians.
The ministry officials said they are making efforts to simplify the visa issuance procedures so that patients can come here easily to receive medical treatment.