South Korea has a great interest in sports and has played host to a number of large international sporting events, including the Olympics, International Association of Athletics Federations events, and the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) swimming World Championships, which took place throughout July this year. As South Korea’s pioneer travel and medical assistance provider, which handles more than 2,000 cases per year for travellers and expatriates, we have always been the contracted assistance provider to these events for all staff and athletes, as well as the local assistance partner for many international assistance companies with insureds attending these events.
As the events are usually held in rural areas, this often poses a number of challenges when it comes to providing medical treatment for international visitors, including language barriers, a lack of staff with substantial experience in dealing with international patients, privacy and medical laws that do not allow doctors to distribute medical information to a third party, and a lack of understanding of direct billing services. To help avoid such problems, we make thorough preparations in advance of such large-scale events, involving a range of educational activities, visiting local hospitals and liaising with the events’ organising committees.
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When the 2018 Winter Olympics were held in South Korea, GAP spent a long time visiting local hospitals ahead of the Games to communicate with them and educate them on how to deal effectively with international patients. We monitored their capabilities closely to ensure direct billing services were set up and a smooth repatriation process would be completed where necessary. We also set up help desks within the lobbies of each local hospital, staffed by members of our medical team, to greet international patients and ensure their smooth processing. With such care and due diligence, GAP assisted in 254 medical cases for the athletes, officials, journalists and other visitors.
“We also set up help desks within the lobbies of each local hospital, staffed by members of our medical team, to greet international patients and ensure their smooth processing”
A year ahead of the FINA events, GAP was in touch with the federation’s Local Organization Committee (LOC) to begin assessing the potential needs of participating international athletes and visitors. We visited the LOC in Gwangju, where the Championships were to be hosted, on several occasions, and had countless telephone calls to adjust and set up our plan. As a result, we were designated as the sole official medical assistance provider for the FINA World Championships and FINA World Masters Championships. This involved providing a Medical Evacuation and Repatriation Plan (MERP) via the main insurance provider to FINA for the athletes, officials and staff, and via our international assistance partners for spectators and other visitors.
To create an effective MERP, we started by visiting the athletes’ village, competition venues, local hospitals, airport and ambulance companies to gather information.
With such events, the LOC is in charge of treating all the patients within the venues’ medical centres, while GAP handles the patients in need of hospital transfer. We calculated the estimated number of patients we’d likely be called to manage and assessed how we could monitor their entire patient journey to ensure their safety and an optimum medical outcome for them.
To do this, we spoke to a number of different local service providers to make sure they were prepared to meet our patients’ needs even in the rural locations in which the Championships would be hosted, and that they were capable of handling the number of cases we anticipated dealing with. These included house call doctors, local ground transport companies, the local public medevac helicopter and other international fixed-wing air ambulance operators.
“We spoke to a number of different local service providers to make sure they were prepared to meet our patients’ needs even in the rural locations in which the Championships would be hosted”
It is important to check the medical facilities available at the medical centres located at the athletes’ village and competition venues, as well as at the hospitals, to ascertain their capabilities, so we looked at their consultation rooms, pharmacies, available medication, and medical equipment, as well as collating a list of relevant staff and their locations. We also confirmed what treatment would be available for a range of symptoms at each medical centre, and the process for referring patients to the designated hospitals, depending on their condition; plus, we met with the ground ambulance service to monitor their medication and equipment levels and talk about the expected number of hospital transfers likely to be necessitated during the Championships.
As we expected an influx of patients needing hospital treatment, in one of the host towns where we had two networked hospitals located next to each other, we arranged to split the transfer of patients between these two facilities as we wanted to make sure that one didn’t receive a proportionately higher number of patients than the other and thus become overburdened. Furthermore, as we did during the Olympics, GAP established onsite teams in these hospitals – as well as the other networked hospitals selected to cater for hospital patients during the Championships in other parts of the Gwangju area – to assist international patients with registration and translation, and immediately check GOP availability for them to avoid unnecessary delays and frustration.
The most difficult part of the process is negotiating with hospitals to ensure a smooth patient journey for international patients. FINA was held at several locations, some of which contained hospitals with experience in treating and processing international patients, but not all of them. Most South Korean hospitals prefer not to have to deal with such patients, due to language barriers, additional administration and unfamiliar procedures, often resulting in the need for additional staff to help patients navigate the payment process, request reports and visit the pharmacy, for example. Uncertainty around GOP is another thing they’re looking to avoid. GAP thus visited local hospitals to comprehensively explain how they could assist with the processing of international patients and persuaded them that the processing of such patients during the Championships would be much easier and quicker with our involvement. By building trust and offering continuous support, we were able to offer easier access for patients and keep them informed of usual hospital processes, as well as a smoother patient handling process for the hospitals.
In total, Global Assistance Partners assisted with 110 international patient assistance cases during the FINA Championships.