By Lee Tae-hoon
Foreign patients have been the victims of ``exceedingly inflated'' medical costs in Korea, according to a study by a state-funded think tank.
``The price disparity in medical fees for foreign patients is too high,'' the report that The Korea Times exclusively obtained says. ``The difference between the lowest and highest fees for the most-sought-after procedures among foreign patients exceeds more than 10 times on average.''
The Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) conducted a survey of 191 hospitals regarding 20 medical procedures between June and December last year and filed the report to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs on Jan. 7, according to sources.
The report shows that some foreign patients were charged rates up to 79 times higher than other foreigners for the same treatment.
Patients undergoing nose reconstruction paid as little as $398, while others had to pay $5,238; tooth implants went for as low as $2,182 or as high as $26,189; and heart valve replacements were priced as low as $1,310, as opposed to the highest fee of $48,730. Spinal fusion surgery was as affordable at $1,577 to some, while others had to pay the hefty fee of $24,377.
Such price disparity exists in the heavily price-regulated Korean hospitals largely because of the government view that its pricing policies do not apply to foreigners.
In fact, Article 1 of the Medical Law states: ``This law is designed to protect and improve the health of all citizens,'' leaving foreigners unprotected from malpractice, discriminatory charging, overpricing and patient privacy rights. (http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2010/02/116_60838.html)
The two government bodies refused to release the report, which cost 40 million won ($34,400) of taxpayers' money, despite repeated requests early this month, over apparent fear that it may deal a blow to the fledgling medical tourism industry.
The National Assembly Research Service and offices of Reps. Shim Jae-chul and Kim Hye-seong also claimed to have been denied access to the ``appalling'' figures last week, following this newspaper's investigation into discriminatory medical fees being levied on foreigners.
Korea is the latest comer to the fast growing medical tourism industry and has officially designated it as a future growth engine. The government hopes local hospitals will attract more than 200,000 medical tourists in 2013, more than 10 times the current figure.