Ethically Questionable Medical Tourism

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Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea
Part 2: Medical Tourism Flawed

Writing in the Korea Times, Dr. Robert J. Fouser, a professor at Seoul National University, notes a serious objection to South Korea's current push to attract foreign tourists for medical and surgical care, including cosmetic surgery.

In Dr. Fouser's words, "Medical tourism is flawed because it is ethically questionable as Korea joins the ranks of the world's oldest nations."

elderly korean population

South Korea is home to the most rapidly aging population in the world as well as one of the world's lowest birthrates, not a good mix.

Beginning around 2016, the percentage of residents over age 65 will grow dramatically while the working age population will begin its decline.

With fewer people supporting more retirees, Korea's national and local governments will face rising public debt to finance pensions and health care.

The aging population will generate increased demand for doctors and hospitals. At present, however, Korea already lags far behind most other advanced nations in the number of doctors per capita with only 1.86 doctors per 1,000 people compared to, for instance, 3.56 in Germany. The same holds for nurses: 4.4 per 1,000 people in Korea versus 10.7 in Germany.

The changing demographic will thus place a very noticeable strain on meager health care resources in Korea and require importing doctors and nurses from overseas just to keep up if even that.

According to Dr. Fouser, the government's present misguided push to develop medical tourism is based on past high-growth-era assumptions of ever increasing GDP, sound public finances, and a relatively young population, fundamentals that are already disappearing. The prospect of using limited doctors, nurses, and medical facilities for foreign tourists seeking cosmetic surgery and other elective procedures seems an obvious misallocation.

APSG Comment: The same argument applies to most East Asian countries including China and Japan. China, for instance, shows a similar rapidly shifting demographic but has even less available healthcare infrastructure for its aging population.

At a certain point in the not too distant future, cosmetic surgery in East Asia (and especially cosmetic surgery on foreign visitors) seems destined to fall to the bottom of the list of treatments vying for the attention of doctors and hospitals in critical short supply, no matter how lucrative.

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