Checkout our Youtube video all about SMILE eye surgery medical tourism in Korea!
What is medical tourism?
The quick answer is that it’s exactly what it sounds like: traveling for medical care. This can look a lot of different ways, but the idea is always the same: people from countries with expensive and/or subpar medical care can travel overseas for elective or planned procedures, often at a fraction of the cost. Some people decide to make a vacation out of medical tourism while others travel only for the procedure.
In the USA our medical care is excellent but it comes at a cost. While America often gets a negative reputation for medical care, that’s largely in reference to the costs and accessibility associated with the practice. The USA still leads the world in cancer survival rates as well as lower heart attack and stroke mortality rates compared to other comparable nations. I say all this to say, medical care in America is really good, but it’s very expensive.
America is most known for its innovation and medical education systems, which means a lot of what America thrives at can be found overseas for a much lower cost.
For example, we’ve been to various doctors overseas for everything from dental care and eye surgery to stomach bugs and ear infections. What did all of those doctors' visits have in common? All of the physicians were educated and trained in the USA and spoke English. Granted, some spoke better English than others, but generally speaking, the communication was wonderful and the care was equal to what we’d receive at home for a much higher cost.
Should I try medical tourism?
Medical tourism is a wonderful option for some, but still not plausible for others. I’m by no means suggesting that medical tourism is a fix for the broken healthcare system in the USA, but it is an option for some, but still too expensive for others.
There are four main things we’d recommend considering before giving medical tourism a go.
What procedure are you looking to have performed? Certain countries are better at some procedures than others. We recommend researching medical tourism practices to get the best care and price possible.
What will the downtime be for your procedure? Simple procedures such as SMILE or LASIK have very little downtown (~24 hours), whereas more invasive procedures such as a hip replacement will consist of hospital time, physical therapy, and a much more uncomfortable plane ride home. Consider whether or not you’d mind being in a foreign country and an unfamiliar apartment or hotel for your recovery process. I know for me, if it were to be a very invasive surgery, I might rather pay more just to be in the comfort of my own home for recovery.
How much time can you afford to travel overseas for your procedure? Will your job allow you to take sick time for medical tourism? Are you traveling strictly for the procedure and not as a way to see a new place, too? Time is invaluable and there never seems to be enough of it. When you’re considering medical tourism, don’t just allow for the procedure and care, but allow for a cushion in case recovery takes longer than you anticipate, the procedure gets rescheduled, delayed flights, etc.
Is medical tourism really going to be less expensive than at home in the USA? Again, that depends on what you’re hoping to have done, where you’re flying to, and if you’re planning on combining the medical care with a vacation. Thinking broadly will allow for the best savings.
What is the best country for medical tourism?
There is no one best country for medical tourism, Canada, Singapore, and Japan regularly rank at the top of the list, but less expensive options such as Mexico and Costa Rica are also popular destinations for Americans. It all depends on what sort of medical care you’re interested in. If you’re based in the USA like we are, we’ve heard great things about dental care in Mexico. Considering Mexico’s close proximity and low cost of living, this makes a great vacation/medical trip destination for lots of various procedures. If you’re looking for orthopedic surgeries, consider heading to India, Spain, or (yes) Mexico. We had a wonderful experience with eye surgery in Korea (SMILE or LASIK), and we’ve also heard great things about plastic surgery in Korea if that’s something you’re after. Do your research for specific countries and practices. You can never be too careful when choosing a physician and hospital, so do your research. We recommend starting with websites such as medicaltourism.com.
As we’ve said before, oftentimes physicians all over the world are educated and trained at the same universities in the USA. But, like every college, someone has to be at the bottom of the class, so read reviews, talk to other travelers, and find out who has a great reputation based on skill and bedside manner.
Why travel to Korea for medical tourism?
Korea is a rapidly developing country on the cutting edge of technology and innovation. For many Americans, Korea is a mystery and oftentimes what first comes to mind is k-pop, k-drama, the Korean War, or some other non-medical related topics. Here are the reasons why Chris decided to get SMILE eye surgery in Korea.
Korea is on the cutting edge and affordable. The SMILE eye surgery procedure is much newer and less invasive than traditional LASIK surgery. Korea’s price for this procedure is a fraction of what we’d pay in the states!
Korea has an excellent reputation for good hygiene and cleanliness. I don’t know about you, but sanitation when it involves a medical procedure is a top concern. Korea is one of the cleanest and hygienic countries making it the perfect place for a medical procedure.
Modern offices and amenities for a comfortable procedure and recovery. Maybe it’s just us, but when we walk into a doctor’s office, appearance is important. You want to see evidence of new technology, cleanliness, and professional staff. Korea offered all of this. Not to mention, in the off chance something went wrong with the procedure and the recovery process took a bit longer than anticipated, Chris would have a comfortable hotel to recover in surrounded by modern conveniences.
Korea is a fascinating place to visit. Sure, when most people think of visiting Asia they think Bali or Bangkok or Tokyo before Korea, but Korea has so much to offer and is well worth a visit, especially if it’s your first trip to Asia.
What is SMILE eye surgery?
We’re all pretty familiar with LASIK eye surgery, so think of SMILE as being the newer, better, and less invasive form of that. The procedure was developed in Germany and has been available to patients since 2007. Yes, it’s newer than LASIK, but it’s not new. It’s been readily available for interested patients for almost 16 years!
SMILE vs. LASIK eye surgery
I’m not a scientist, so I’d rather refer you to this article and this article written by much more knowledgeable people than myself. Here’s my brief explanation though…
LASIK involves a corneal incision that essentially flips the cornea open with a laser then uses another laser to reshape the “underlying stroma by removing the appropriate corneal tissue for vision correction”(source).
SMILE on the other hand doesn’t flip the cornea open, but rather creates an almost keyhole type incision that the laser enters through to reshape the cornea.
SMILE is still the more expensive option since it’s newer, and it’s best suited for nearsighted patients. LASIK is less expensive but a better fit for farsighted patients as well as available to nearsighted patients.
One thing they mentioned to us while at the doctor’s office in Korea is that SMILE holds up better over time for people who regularly put their bodies through high-impact activities (running, soccer, etc.). My basic understanding from what they were saying is that overtime the cut that was made and flipped back on the cornea during LASIK can become damaged over time and impact, but SMILE holds up better since there was only a hole instead of a flip on the eye.
How much does SMILE LASIK eye surgery cost in Korea?
All in for both eyes including the pre-procedure office visit, pre and post treatment care (eye drops, antibiotics, etc.), check up appointment the following day, and full time English translator, we paid ~$2,100 USD. I’m rounding that number because while we were there, the USD was really strong (about .71 for every 1000 won), so it might be slightly more today or when you visit. Note, that’s for both eyes which were nearsighted and had a severe astigmatism. Not too bad in our opinion!
In the USA this same procedure would have cost $2,000-$3,000 USD per eye! ($4,000-$6,000 total)
Is it worth flying overseas to have LASIK (SMILE) performed?
In our case, it was well worth the money to go overseas to have the procedure performed. Here’s how we justified the plane tickets…
Y’all know we travel as part of our jobs and we’re always looking to visit a new country and Korea has been on our wishlist for a long time now. But, tickets to Asia aren’t cheap! We waited until we saw a good deal come available and snagged it. Here’s a very basic overview of our budget for 3 weeks in Korea. Keep in mind that you can travel there for a much shorter trip and save a significant amount of money. We’re digital nomads so we like to travel slower and enjoy living/working in a new place for a longer amount of time than we’d be there for just a vacation.
Plane tickets: We flew Delta round trip from Nashville (BNA) which cost ~$1,100 per person.
Hotel: The short answer is that we ended up staying at one of Marriott's smaller properties in the Gangnam neighborhood. It was safe, very clean (and I’m usually super picky about hotels!), and just about a mile from the eye center. We were able to get an extended stay discount (reservations for two weeks or longer) which brought down our average nightly rate to ~$75/night for our three week reservation.
Food: When you eat like the locals, you save a lot of money. We generally skip breakfast and just opt for coffee so our budget might be less than yours if you like breakfast, but for two meals a day (generally mom and pop Korean restaurants) + coffee in the morning, we spent ~$40/day on food and drink.
Entertainment and tours: We purchased two tours while in Korea: a DMZ tour and a Gwangjang Market food tour. We’d highly recommend both as a small splurge while in Korea. The DMZ tour with TIP Tours cost ~$64 per person and the food tour cost $75 per person. Total we spent $278 on entertainment.
Transportation: Transportation is super safe and very affordable in Korea! We took the subway as often as possible, which ran ~$1 per trip. We also used Uber a good bit since we were staying so far away from many of the neighborhoods we most enjoyed. Sometimes it was just easier (and faster) to Uber. Each Uber ride cost between $10-20 which was a fair payoff in our opinion when the alternative was standing on a subway for over an hour during rush hour. Sometimes we’d Uber one way then Subway back to save money. Total spent on transportation was ~$325 (this includes rides to and from ICN airport).
SMILE eye surgery procedure: The procedure cost $2,100 for both eyes. This included all examinations and medications for post-procedure care.
Other: We’re not big souvenir people so we didn’t buy anything on the trip past a couple of postcards. We did pay for a dog sitter a few times during our longer outings to places that weren’t dog friendly (DMZ, food tour, etc.) which ran ~$40/day (note: I’m not going to figure that into this budget though since most people won’t be traveling with a dog.)
Total = $7,318
Okay, I know that sounds like a lot, but that was the total cost for two people in Korea for three weeks including the eye procedure cost. Like I said before, it would have cost $4,000-6,000 to have the same procedure performed in the USA. We already wanted to visit Korea, so for us it made sense to spend that much money. It might not for you though! It all depends. Keep in mind that you could spend significantly less money than us if you were to find cheaper plane tickets and go for less time.
The way we looked at it was that we were going to visit Korea anyway and LASIK had been in the plans for a couple of years now, so if you assume that LASIK would have cost $6,000 in the states and we were already going to do it anyway, that means we only spent $1,318 more dollars to go to Korea. I know, that might seem like a stretch, but that’s how we decided to go ahead and splurge!
Is SMILE eye surgery safe?
Absolutely. SMILE has been widely available since 2007 and has been proven to be both incredibly successful and safe! In fact, today statistics show that SMILE has fewer complications than LASIK, and can be more successful in correcting vision (source).
How to book SMILE eye surgery in Korea
While the idea of booking a medical appointment in a foreign country can sound a bit daunting, don’t be intimidated. You can 100% do it! I can’t vouch for every practice around the world, but our experience at BGSS Eye Clinic in Korea was incredible.
Let me start by saying that for international patients, BGSS Eye Clinic will connect you with their translator through an app to do all the scheduling and arrangements. Now that might not sound legitimate for us as Americans, but I assure you, it is. Koreans are incredibly tech savvy and when you’re dealing with a language barrier, text is much easier for both parties to save from any miscommunications. The translator you’re connected with in the app will be the same one you walk with through all office visits and the procedure.
Important note: Korea doesn’t use Google. They have their own version of communication apps, search engines, and more. While much of the world uses What’sApp or text messages, Korea most commonly uses an app called KAKAO TALK. You’ll see this app used all over the country, so just trust me, download it before you even head on over to Korea.
The translator we worked with (Devon) was incredible, had perfect English, and made the process so smooth. Booking a SMILE appointment was very easy. If you know you’re going to want to do SMILE eye surgery in Korea, even before you head over, you can most definitely contact and schedule your appointment ahead of time. If you’re in Korea already and decide you’d like to try and give eye surgery a go while you’re there, still contact BGSS Eye Clinic. They regularly take last minute appointments (sometimes even at a discounted rate!).
Day of eye surgery schedule
The day Chris went in for his SMILE eye surgery was a breeze. The office who completed the procedure was offering a discount for same day procedures which might sound sketchy, but it’s completely normal, especially considering how routine the procedure is. The main thing to note is that your entire day will be devoted to your SMILE surgery so plan accordingly.
9:00 am: Initial consultation with the physician as well as examining the eyes
11:00 am: Finish consultation
1:30 pm: Head in for final check-in before procedure and review exam results and learn the post-procedure care instructions.
2:00 pm: Procedure begins
2:45 pm: Procedure is finished, head home
The rest of the day will be spent caring for eyes and sleeping/laying down.
What is the SMILE eye surgery exam consultation like?
To confirm that you’re a good candidate for SMILE eye surgery you’ll be put through a very thorough consultation process. The entire consultation will run about 2-2 ½ hours, but keep in mind that all of the analyzing and reviewing that they’re doing is to ensure that your eyes will respond well to the procedure. Here’s a quick outline of what you can expect during your SMILE eye surgery consultation.
*Heads up: There’s a lot of medical jargon in the section below. This is verbatim what the walk-through sheet said that the clinic sent over about Chris’ procedure. I am not a medical professional so I will not try paraphrasing it just in case I say something wrong.
You’ll fill out a questionnaire with medical history information which the medical staff will review before running any tests.
Testing your corneal DNA is essential to make sure that your eyes will respond well to the procedure. The DNA sample will be gathered from the inside of your mouth so you can expect to have to gargle with a solution before they take a small swab inside your cheek.
Finding out the refraction error using an ARK (Auto Refractometer) machine.
Checking intraocular pressure (IOP) without making contact using the Non-contact tonometry machine.
Multi area specular microscopy to check the count for endothelium cells using a Specular Microscope.
Analyze the corneal topography and tomography (shape and thickness) via the modular and mobile Dual Scheimpflug and Placido system for refractive and cataract surgery.
Non-contact examination that photographs the surface of the eye (shape and thickness) using an “Oculus Pentacam.”
If the prescription of your glasses and actual data from the test have big differences, another optometrist will be cross-checking the data (visual acuity test).
Cross-checking your refraction errors using the machine once more (auto-ref / Keratomoeter).
Checking the pupil size at night using the Pupil Meter.
Checking the thickness of cornea using ultrasound probe (Corneal Pachymetry).
Panoramic digital image of the retina (Optomap).
After completing all of the tests, you’ll meet with the ophthalmologist to discuss if you’re a prime candidate and what the procedure will look like for your specific care.
Medical tourism for elective procedures can be a wonderful way to save money and to experience a new culture. If you’re considering LASIK SMILE (or any LASIK procedure), Korea is a wonderful place to travel to. Chris said he'd 100% have the procedure performed in Korea again. The process was seamless, easy, and painless (with the exception of slight eye discomfort for 24 hours after the procedure).
Would you travel overseas for elective and/or cosmetic procedures? If so, let us know where you’d go in the comments below!
Like this article? Checkout our other travel guides from Korea!
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!