Jeju aspires to be top medical tourism destination
By Noh Hyun-gi
JEJU CITY — Hospitals in Korea are keen to accommodate more patients from overseas by marketing their medical excellence and coordination service. In 2011, local centers drew 110,000 foreign patients and broadening medical tourism has bred a booming business such as online communication tools and personal brokers.
This upward trend is not yet a nationwide phenomenon. Medical tourists flock to the “big five” in the capital — Asan Medical Center, Samsung Medical Center, Severance Hospital, Seoul National University Hospital and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital and don’t go anywhere else pretty much.
A regional hospital’s attempt to standout in this skewed competition opens a whole new chapter. Cheju Halla General Hospital is marching into alternative medicine and profit-making, both bold moves, to lure travelers to Jeju Island.
Located in Jeju City, the 700-bed facility is converting an old hotel into a hydrotherapy resort in Seogwipo, a city on the southern part of the island. WE Hotel, short for water and energy, will sit in on a reservoir of carbonated water, and the facilities will have check-up, plastic surgery, dermatology, clinical psychotherapy and postnatal care centers. By 2017, the hotel will have a cancer center as well.
The medical services will utilize the nearby water resource which contains vanadium. Visitors will be able to swim, drink or intake vapors (spa) of the mineral water; studies have found that it can alleviate indigestion, reduce risks of cardio vascular problems and relieve certain skin problems. Also, for people with compromised joints, exercising in water can prevent further damage.
However, these approaches fall under alternative medicine, the realm that includes acupuncture and herbal medicine. For the most part, practitioners of conventional medicine disregard or even refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy.
Unexpectedly, Kim Sung-soo, the president of the Halla Hospital finds it the most natural strategy for Jeju to compete in the medical tourism race. In fact, he is ready to embrace all of it — herbal medicine and cosmetics included.
“We have two different advantages; technical and touristic,” Kim said at his office in Jeju City, Monday. Though Kim believes the facilities on the island do not fall behind Seoul-based institutions, he understands the disadvantage in size.
Therefore, Kim is targeting a different segment of health-conscious travelers. “We want to invite people who want to relax, focus on their bodies while they are on vacation. That is why we are offering check-up services.”
“For major surgeries, people will prefer the big five in Seoul, so we are narrowing in on services that are more approachable and accessible.”
Situated 350-meters above sea-level, the site has a fantastic view of Mt. Halla and the ocean. The hospital was able to launch the hotel business as the Korean law allows profit generating activities related to tourism; it is one of the few legal initiatives a medical institution can take to make money and invest outside of operating a hospital.
WE Hotel integrates a small-size hospital, branch of Halla and a high-end resort. About 60 of the 110 beds are dedicated to patients and will have the same amenities as any hospital room.
Routes are being built to promote guests to take walks in the forest and even practice meditation or yoga. Herbal medicine is no exception in the aggressive, yet holistic approach catered for tourists.
“We want to develop commodities such as health drinks made from Jeju’s natural offerings. The island has a diverse ecosystem with herbs known for their healing effects.”
WE Hotel is even eyeing the beauty market. “We are hoping to collaborate with another government-funded program that is looking into the use of Jeju tangerine peels on human skin,” Kim said. “Such projects are sold at high prices in the cosmetic industry and I think we can integrate that into our hotel service.” The Ministry of Knowledge Economy funded the hospital’s three-year research on hydrotherapy prior to the establishment of the hotel.
“Health insurance does not recognize alternative medicine yet, but I believe that the demand will grow as Koreans experience the benefits of hydrotherapy,” said Kim who traveled Europe on trains to visit prominent water therapy centers. Currently, health insurance in Germany, Switzerland and France reimburses hydrotherapy treatments.
“Japan adopted hydrotherapy about 20 years ago and as is commonly known, Japanese people frequent hot springs. Therefore, it is reached the stage where water treatment centers have to compete with spa facilities for customers,” he said.
While the medical philosophy of the new establishment might remain puzzling, Jeju government is welcoming hydrotherapy with open arms.
At the International Hydrotherapy Symposium at Jeju Grand Hotel hosted by the hospital and the city on Wednesday, Kim Yong-jin, the director of the Tourism Association of the island called it a “green light for our tourism industry.”
Park Kyeong-ok, director of Health Education and Management department and Ehwa Womans University, spoke at the conference.