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South Korea invites tourists to its hospitals

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, with 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 visas 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 procedures are over.

The government has revised immigration rules to allow foreign patients and their families to get long-term medical visas and has altered laws to permit local hospitals to form joint ventures with foreign hospitals in some cases.

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