Stem cell banking: The newest lure in medical tourism
When Min Lee, 54, first toured Seoul's Chaum Life Center -- which is spearheading Korea's stem cell banking industry -- she didn’t quite know what to make of it.
“It rather looks and sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, with all the talk about stem cell treatments,” said Lee, who accompanied her friend to a fitness class at the medical facility and soon found herself touring the luxurious 20,000-square-meter premises in disbelief.
Opened in 2010 and operated by Cha Hospital, one of the larger hospitals in Korea, Chaum has more state-of-the-art technology than a university hospital, but styles itself as a “Life Center."
It has been the subject of significant media attention recently for its glittering facilities, controversial stem cell treatment, customized schools of therapy and hefty membership fees that match its ritzy Cheongdam-dong location.
The deposit for a membership costs ₩170 million (approximately US$152,000, and returned after 10 years) and an additional annual charge of ₩4.5 million (approximately US$4,000).
Memberships, which feature a number of checkups and treatments, including stem cell banking, are sold only to Koreans. International patients are billed according to the specific treatments received.
“We are the only facility in the world that incorporates Western medicine, Oriental medicine and alternative medicine,” said Chaum’s global marketing representative Yuna Lee, who works on Chaum’s medical tourism with various international agencies.
Stem cell banking -- one of Chaum’s biggest draws -- is also the Center’s most controversial marketing vehicle.
“Stem cell treatment is not permitted in most countries, and it is only permitted to some extent in Korea,” said Kyu Sung Rim, president of Chaum. “Reproducing stem cells is not legal here yet, but we are confident that it will soon be legalized.”
Acting on the premise of legalization in the near future, Chaum extracts and stores the stem cells of patients, sending them to its research laboratory in Bundang to be analyzed for the best possible treatment of likely future illnesses.
“Once it becomes legalized, we will then be able to reproduce stem cells and use them for the best possible treatment,” said Rim.
NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens made headlines in the United States when he traveled to Korea for a three-day stem cell treatment for a knee injury at Chaum last September.
“Around 40 percent of our patients are from abroad,” says JiHye Han of Chaum’s public relations team. “We have a lot of Arab princes and princesses and VVIP patients from all over the world, including Europe, the United States and especially China and Japan. Last year, around 900 international patients came here for care.”
As a result of its significant contributions to boosting Korea’s medical tourism, the Life Center recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Korea Tourism Organization for a joint development project.
Apart from stell cell banking, Chaum offers a dizzying array of treatment options that include the most comprehensive medical checkup in the country, sleep therapy in the only sleep capsule machines in Asia, acupuncture and “tea therapy,” as well as doctor-prescribed personalized menus at the facility’s gourmet restaurant Les Trois.
Not all customers have been favorably impressed.
“It’s rather difficult to navigate because the building wasn’t originally built for its current purpose,” said Chaum member Young Seo. “One of my sons had a checkup at Chaum, and while he said it was nice that all the staff came to him instead of having to go to the various checkup points himself, the staff seemed less experienced than those at university hospitals.”
But most of the reviews have been laudatory. It seems that the premise of customized, preventive and futuristic treatment is proving irresistable for many.
"I like the idea of having stem cells stored away for when I'm going to get sick," said Lee. "It's the best kind of insurance."
Chaum, Gangnam-gu Cheongdam-dong 4-1, Seoul, Korea (서울특별시 강남구 청담동 4-1); +82 2 3015 5077; www.chaum.net
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