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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Medical tourism is the travel of patients from their places of residence to foreign countries, where medical technology is advanced yet affordable, for the purpose of receiving medical services. In recent times, the privilege of travelling to another country for healthcare has come within the reach of the middle classes due to a general increase in socioeconomic status around the globe. The increasing medical costs in many countries with aging societies also accounts for the substantial rise in population of medical tourists. In the current era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution where inter-industrial convergence is prevalent, futurologists have forecasted that the medical tourism industry is a promising sector due to it being one of the fastest growing tourism markets in the world. It will also be the highest value added service industry where US$230billion is predicted to be generated in 2020. This motivates many governments around the world to designate their medical tourism industry as a national strategic industry.

With that, one such government that places great emphasis on medical tourism would be South Korea. The government has initiated measures like simplifying the process of visas for medical patients and provide aids to hospitals. Such measures have exacerbated the rise in status of South Korea as one of the top destinations for medical tourism despite the recent foray into this market. Compounding on the aforementioned points, the rise can be also be attributed by pull factors such as being one of the most advanced medical countries in the world and the presence of well-trained staffs. Propagation of such recognition is also due to a recent phenomenon known as the “Korean wave” where Korean cultures and technology penetrate into every corner of the world. Consequently, it has led to such great awareness of the Korean medical industry where it can even be said to be representative of the country. Delving deeper into the industry, the Korean's medical tourism market has mainly capitalise on cosmetic surgery and has been synonymous with plastic surgery as evident from its pseudonym – World's Plastic Surgery Capital. However, in recent times, the rates of cosmetic surgery has been declining and in this regard, the government is making efforts to nurture and develop a more diversified health tourism destination.

Starting with a definition of innovation, in the tourism context, refers to how a single innovation can, under favourable circumstances, leads to reshaping of an entire tourism landscape Narrowing the scope down to South Korea, cosmetic surgery has been an innovation that has permanently altered how both insiders and outsiders view their medical tourism industry. A unique tourism landscape has been curated in this case. Innovations have been especially prevalent in this medical tourism industry due to high saturation and competition levels. Medical facilities constantly review their skills and treatments to secure the flow of patients and to cement their foothold in the industry.

Essentially, the industry has to also innovate in a way that it follows the social trends. Medical procedures have to be frequently innovated in order to cater to the changing and dynamic needs of the population. This brings about the official term “ Health care innovation”  which can be defined as dynamic and continuous processes involving the introduction of new technologies or techniques that initiate changes in practices). The medical tourism industry has indeed followed this mantra as seen from dynamisms in medical tourism such as the establishments of customised medical tour packages. A case in point will be in South Korea where it is the first country to introduce a national licensing system for International Meditour Coordinators (IMC) who are professionals aiding foreign patients with their schedules and travel, provide range of services and facilitate their treatments

Additionally, marketing strategies and policies have to be updated with changing times for continual attraction of medical tourists. For instance, a Seoul hotel from the Marriot Chain signed contracts with clinics to give guests discounts. Cosmetic surgery clinics have also reached out and incentivised online influencers with large online presence to promote their services via “vlogging” and reviews. A crucial point to note is that, they are commonly done in the default language of the world, English, which expands their global presence. Such marketing also targets at the appropriate subset of the population, the more tech-savvy younger generation who are inevitably more susceptible to society norms and hence, commands a larger demand of these services. This postulates that clinics recognise the growing significance of virtual platforms as mediums to connect with potential consumers worldwide and digital marketing which transcends geographical boundaries.

Such innovations have certainly promoted medical tourism as more personalised, convenient and affordable, appealing to greater masses abroad.  

Next, innovativeness is also exemplified in medical procedures. In the case of South Korea, invasive and high risk surgeries are vestiges of the past and patients now opt for minimally invasive surgeries without involving scalpel. This has led to innovations, one such instance by Kim Hyung-Tae, a Surgeon who pioneered a new technology for changing a patient's voice without making incisions in the skin. His surgery skills have become the global standard and are drawing many patients from all over the world. This illustrates the essentiality of innovations in new medical treatments and tourists have to travel to a specific place to sought for specialised treatments

In Seoul, South Korea, many international and domestic medical tourists frequent medical tourist hotspots. Seeking plastic surgery, one would usually head down to Gangnam-gu where the famed Agujeong plastic surgery district is situated. For minimally-invasive spinal surgery, it would be the specialised hospital– The Wooridul Spine Hospital. It's ranked top in the country with over 20000 surgeries annually.

The popularity of such districts and hospitals can be attributed to the fact that medical tourists are on the quests for authenticity. This can be based on the languages used, verbal or non-verbal, credibility, origin of professionals, medical facilities available and branding. These are which South Korea claims to fulfil. In the visitmedicalkorea website, a webpage curated for Korea's medical tourism market, they posit that the government has strict regulations over the medical field and possess the world's best medical technology. They also maintain that in the cancer field, their medical staffs have the most clinical trial experience among other medically advanced nations. With all the positive reviews and recognition perpetuated by word of mouth and media outlets, these become attributes of constructive authenticity, in which medical tourists sought after.

Medical Tourists are also in the search for objective authenticity in their experiences and in the past, that would be in the field of proton therapy. Medical tourists who were suffering from cancer in the region would have to travel to South Korea for such treatment as they possess the only Proton Therapy Centre in Asia. In present day, such authenticity can be found in the hair clinic sector. South Korea's credentials rose after it became the first in the world to perform follicle and hair implant procedures without incision. It's popularity with medical tourists will be further exacerbated due to patients are seeking for minimally invasive surgery which was mentioned above. With that, many of the medical centres such as Wooridul Spine Hospital pride themselves on administrative support and close patient-doctor relations. This allows tourists to achieve high level of existential authenticity.

Next, quality of encounter is also crucial to patients where it can be based on the prices and quality of services. On the matter of health costs, South Korea's prices are 30-45% lower than that in United States due to insurance coverage provision for foreign.. Patients are also likely to receive high quality treatments by trained doctors. This on top of lower costs incurred will certainly increase perception of quality encounters.

With all the measures above aiming to attract medical tourists, The Korea Tourism Board also hopes to turn other types of tourists into medical tourists so they will stay longer and subsequently, increase their tourism receipts. Tour operators now sell travel deals that includes plastic surgery into mass travel packages to facilitate, convenience and diversify their travel experiences. Furthermore, the Board has also introduced “In-Transit Medical Tourism Program” in 2016 where transiting passengers through Incheon Airport are able to sought for medical services in the area vicinity.  

Therefore, authenticity where types of medical treatments received are concerned and quality of encounters such as the way they are hosted, are determinants of the popularity of South Korea's medical tourism.

There is no denial that medical tourism is in the midst of a boom and to fuel the growth of this market, innovations should be continual. Despite having some of its innovativeness associated with features of common, everyday tourism experiences, they do still possess some of their own uniqueness.

As discussed above, Tourisms are not only passive recipients of innovations but also powerful drivers of innovations. Innovations are systemic and integral to the tourist systems. Hence, apart from the introduction on medical tourism, this essay also posits the cruciality of innovativeness in tourism.

Building on Schumpeter's interpretation of innovations deemed as newness based on incremental and radical categories , Chan at el. concludes that there are 3 types of innovations in tourism.

1. Incremental (Does not require breakthroughs in market or technology, includes quality improvement, cost reductions associated with performances)

2. Distinctive (Usually demands adaptation of consumer behaviour and organisations)

3. Breakthrough (Involves new approaches in consumer behaviour, system or new technology)

Incremental innovations are seen in both common and medical tourisms which can be in the form of general service improvements. Service innovations can be split into 4 categories – product, process, organization and market innovations. Evidently, there has been an tremendous increase in varieties of services offered in all types of tourisms. For instance, innovations in process and organization such as facilitations of the various types of tourists has been more efficient due to growing familiarity with tourism. For instance, in medical tourism, a new mixed-use “innovative” business model coined “Hotels Bridging Health Care”  recently gained ground where medical recovery takes place in the comfort of a luxury hotel. However, such integration has long be seen in other forms of tourisms like Safari Tourism. In Africa, luxury safari lodges which are situated in the middle of safari allows one to indulge in both luxurious and safari settings.

Distinctive innovations are also observed in both tourisms but manifested in different ways. For instance, in mass tourism which are often sold in package deals and have early bird discounts, spur consumers to purchase. Similarly, in medical tourism, medical tour packages often include other forms of services such as transportations or accommodations offered at relatively cheaper prices, encourages tourists to extend their stay. Both forms of packages have become the norm for tourists seeking such tourisms.

Many of the innovations in medical tourism were brought about by breakthroughs in technology and economic statuses. These breakthroughs constantly results in modifications of products and processes in medical tourism. This is similar to any others tourisms as they are always subjected to changes reflecting shifts in tastes and preferences due to technological and economic conditions. Hence, any of such breakthroughs allow tourists to indulge in new and similar experiences.

Moving away from the categories, one of the most distinct similarity between medical tourism and tourism is the influential power of tourists to shape the landscape in the host countries mentioned in Tourist Gaze. Both forms of tourists travel to seek new identities and their travel leads to commodification of services. For instance, technological advances in areas like air travel has made tourism more affordable. Similarly, travelling abroad for cosmetic surgery which was once lucrative to those of higher financial status but has now become commodified due to advances in technology and globalisation. This has made travelling less exclusive, allowing many to have the same experience.

Further drawing parallels between medical and general tourism, both types of tourists are in the search for authentic experiences, especially in the form of existential authenticity where they want to explore a different side of themselves, be it physically or emotionally.

However, there are different characteristics between the types of tourism such as the contrasting motivations in their travel and also affordability issues. Medical tourists travel to seek for medical assistance and such travels are usually costlier than those who are on leisure travel. Medical tourism is also intrinsically different from general tourism with respect to biosecurity risks. Individuals who engage in medical tourism are deliberately travelling to a new environment and engaging in practices that potentially exposes them to new pathogens.  

Lastly, many would also argue that due to the blurred line between medical and general tourisms, it is hard to differentiate between both types of tourism. For instance, tourist operators now encompass various types of tourism such as shopping, medical, culinary attractions into one bundle. In such a scenario, it is hard to distinguish the main type of tourism the individual is indulging in due to a myriad of motivations.

In conclusion, since similar innovations are observed in both common and medical tourisms, they undermine the unique innovativeness boasted by medical tourism. With that, can we say that medical tourism is truly “innovative” when such innovations observed in medical tourism have also pervaded all aspects of tourism.

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