Global Assistance Partners was established in 2009; how have you seen the local assistance industry change since your entry to the market?
Until 2009, the field of medical assistance for international insurance in South Korea was very small. In 1983, we were a correspondent of an international assistance company in Europe. We were a travel agency and not many travellers visited South Korea, thus the number of international patients was even lower. The term medical assistance did not even really exist. When I visited hospitals to meet patients and make a payment on their behalf, the hospital questioned why a travel agency was paying the bill. Only a couple of cases happened a month, so there were not many jobs for an assistance co-ordinator. My main work was therefore with the travel agency, and when travellers needed assistance, I helped them. Then came the 1988 Summer Olympics, which started a significant shift in tourist numbers. Many Japanese visited Seoul during the Olympics, and the number of cases significantly increased. We hired 10 translators during the Olympics to assist many Japanese and some European patients.
In 2009, the government officially set up a medical tourism programme to promote our excellent medical industry worldwide. The plan was modelled on Thailand and Singapore, which are advanced medical tourism countries. This field was expanded with this new system, and it also increased the number of clients coming for medical tourism without private insurance, especially in the plastic surgery and skincare fields.
In the meantime, Global Assistance Partners expanded its services, and attended ITIC Global and ITIC APAC every year to strengthen relationships with our industry partners and meet new clients. The medical tourism market has seen a 20-per-cent increase each year, from 60,201 people in 2009 to 497,464 people in 2019, right before the pandemic. The number of cases handled by GAP continuously increased to 2,832 cases in 2019. However, due to Covid-19, the number of cases decreased over 50 per cent last year.
How would you define the service you offer to customers; and what makes your company stand out from other providers of assistance services?
GAP provides a variety of services including medical and travel assistance, repatriation, repatriation of mortal remains, cash advance and legal assistance. We have over six years’ experience in repatriation from North to South Korea as a correspondent of a company in Europe, which cannot be done anymore due to our political issues. We have been the designated assistance company for all international sports competitions, such as the Olympics and FINA Swimming Championships, and dispatched our medical team and ambulances to transfer patients from these events to our network of hospitals for appropriate care. We have over 200 networked hospitals in South Korea, including the most renowned hospitals with best quality, which means patients are able to arrive at one of our hospitals within one hour from anywhere in this country. We refer our valuable clients to the best hospitals, and by doing so we maintain our network list and can provide good rate of GAP discounts. GAP is the one and only local company that provides guarantee of payment over US$4 million a year, with over 2,000 patients referred. Most of all, we provide regular updates to our customers with the latest Covid news. The government mainly focuses on providing information in Korean, as it changes quickly and they cover a lot of ground, and it is difficult for them to provide information in English in the same way. We understand this difficulty, so we check all the recent changes and pick only the necessary ones for international patients and provide English translations of these regularly. We believe that it is our role to help customers to stay safe and healthy while they are in South Korea.
Building a network of approved hospitals is a key aspect of giving insurance companies confidence that their members will be treated in line with best medical practice, and for a fair price. How have you built your medical network in South Korea to ensure this is the case for insurance company clients?
We have built our network list with several criteria; the most important things are:
• The medical team’s foreign language proficiency
• Outstanding medical treatment technology
• Administration service for international patients
• Experiences in international patients’ consultation
• Satisfaction level of patients
• Korean Institute for Healthcare Accreditation approval
• Reasonable and customary medical expenses.
We regularly visit the hospitals every year and evaluate them based on the above, and ultimately, their ability to provide the best medical services to our clients.
GAP also offers repatriation of mortal remains services to its clients; how much more complex have these services been made due to Covid, and how have you overcome these challenges?
Repatriation of mortal remains assistance is one of the most advanced level of assistance, as each country has different requirements and there are many procedures to successfully navigate. Now the procedure is even more complicated as each country has set up different infection prevention law. GAP needs to check a destination country’s quarantine policies and requirements more carefully with the embassy and customs before embarking on a repatriation task. For instance, some countries require the family of the deceased to be on site when issuing the document, but due to the two-week quarantine rules and no flights landing or taking off on time, proceedings were delayed many times. We also had a case at the sea, and ships were – and are – difficult to gain entry permits to without quarantine, and the deceased cannot be disembarked at the initial destination.
At the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were not many flights operating, and most airlines did not allow mortal remains onboard. Therefore, the cost of flights was way more expensive compared to a few years ago. Things are slowly getting better now, and the cost has returned to about the same rate now as it was pre-pandemic. However, there are still many places that have strict standards when entering the country or cities. As each country has different regulations, we try to find the best way considering the distinct characteristics of the countries.
Looking ahead, beyond the pandemic, what are your hopes for the future of travel assistance, and what role do you envision technology playing in the delivery of international medical assistance services?
We hope that vaccinations can be progressed quickly so that travel return to normality. This stage of depression in assistance field can only be solved with the resumption of normal air travel. Also, I believe that in the post Covid-19 assistance field, aside from the regular assistance, technology will be more advanced and have higher utilisation rates, especially for remote work, telemedicine and house calls for infectious diseases.