If you went to Korea and got sick, what would you do? Where would you go? Could you communicate with the doctors? How much is it going to cost you? Are the doctors any good? These are just some of the worries a foreigner has when they get sick enough to go see a doctor in Korea. I have been here now for 13 years, and I have answers for all these questions.
To begin with, Korean hospitals are very, very modern. Yes, they have the traditional medicine places, but only some Koreans go to those places. Most of them go to modern hospitals like are in America. Koreans stay more up to date than anyone in the world. I have seen then tear up roads that are considered just fine, even in America, but they want to improve the road and make a new one, so they tear it up and redo it. They see a flower garden and decide they want different, new flowers, so they tear the perfectly good flower garden up and completely change it. They want a car, but they won’t drive a second hand car. They must have the nicest, most up to date car they can find. When you phone is a year old, all of a sudden, people start telling you your phone is out of date and think you should buy a new one. They did. Korean hospitals are the same. They are equipped with the latest, most modern equipment. There are some really big hospitals with big names, and there are many, many smaller hospitals. The smaller hospitals may not have as much fancy equipment as the big ones.
What about the Korean doctors and nurses? How do they measure up compared to doctors and nurses in other countries? The Korean doctors are very educated! They know their stuff, and most of them also speak English. Very seldom have I visited a doctor who didn’t begin speaking English to me. Some nurses speak English, but not so many. If you go to the international clinics they have set up in big hospitals, the nurses from the international clinic speak English, but nurses in other parts of the hospital and technicians probably don’t. In my estimation, the nurses leave something to be desired. They don’t take their jobs as seriously as American nurses. A doctor decided to stick me in the hospital once, and my daughter was extremely surprised when the nurse handed her the bed pan and told her she couldn’t go home, but had to stay there and take care of me. My daughter had to sleep on a small cot beside my bed and become my nurse. The Korean nurses say their only job is giving medicine and monitoring the IVs. The nurses are not there to take care of the patients. The family members must take off work and stay with the sick family member and take care of them.
What about the price? Healthcare is extremely reasonable in Korea. If you have a job in Korea, you have the Korean government medical insurance, and there are also private insurance companies that you can get extra insurance from them. However, even if you don’t have the Korean government insurance or the private insurance, going to the doctor is much more affordable in Korean with no insurance than it is with insurance if you were to go in America. American hospital bills are off the charts crazy. However, if the hospital staff knows you have medical insurance here in Korea, they will not hesitate to run any test they feel like or stick you in the hospital for any treatment whether it is an emergency or not. If you don’t have insurance, though, the Korean doctors become very careful with how many tests they run and don’t want to stick you in the hospital for anything. Think about your co-pay with your insurance if you go to see your doctor in American, and you may pay that much or less to go see a doctor if you don’t have insurance in Korea.
There are hospitals everywhere in Korea, both large and small. However, if a foreigner shows up at a small hospital, they may have a hard time communicating. Even the doctors at the small hospitals may or may not speak English. There are also traditional medicine clinics. I don’t recommend them, and I have never been to one, but only heard stories. I have thought about visiting one and blogging about it for you sometime, but I haven’t yet. If you need a doctor in Korea, it is better to go to a big hospital where there is an international clinic, and there are several. I have actually been to two of these kinds of hospitals.
The first one I have been to like this is Severance, Yonsei University Hospital. It is easy to find. Go to the American embassy in Gangwhamun in Seoul, come out in the street and face Geongbuk Palace. You have to go by car with these directions. If you don’t have one, take a taxi. They are cheap. At Geongbuk Palace, turn left. Follow that road until Sinchon subway station is on the left and Severance Hospital is on the right.
If you are driving a car, go into the parking garage, and go up to the third floor. Be careful because you may accidentally come out in the morgue. If you do that, you will have to go into the next building. If you come out of the elevator on the third floor, you will have to go around to the main part of the floor and go toward the back of the great hall, and you will find the International Medical Clinic. If you come in a taxi or on the subway, the third floor is where you enter from outside. You will see a circular information desk as you go in. Go past the information desk and toward the back of the great hall, and you will see the International Clinic on your right. If you go all the way to the end of that hall, you have gone to far. It is the second to the last clinic in the great hall. There is a hall between it and the clinic behind it.
Inside of the clinic, there is a long oblong desk where all the nurses speak English. If a patient doesn’t speak English, they go to the left when they enter to a smaller desk, and they find a translator for the language you speak. If you see a doctor in this clinic, they all speak English. One is a Canadian who grew up in Korea who speaks Korean and English equally, and there is another doctor who is half Japanese and half Korean, and she speaks English, Korean, and Japanese. The other doctors there are Korean bilingual in both Korean and English. These doctors are general practitioners. You visit with them, and they decide if they can treat you or need to send you on to a specialist outside of the international clinic. If they send you on to a specialist, either an English speaking nurse will accompany you to the next doctor or a student volunteer who speaks English will accompany you. Someone will be with you the whole time you are there who speaks English, knows their way around, and can translate for you.
It is a really good system, and there are some good doctors, and some mediocre doctors. The problem I had going to Severance was that it is a teaching hospital. When you go to see the specialist, there are student doctors in the office with them, and too many doctors were putting my car in the hands of the student doctors, and the student doctors were all making mistakes. I began to feel like they were trying to kill me they were making so many mistakes, so I found another hospital, but many people are very please with the care they get at Severance. It is good if you just make sure they don’t hand you off to a student doctor.
The hospital I go to now is Women’s Ewha Hospital in Mok dong. It is not just for women, but there is a University called Women’s Ewha University in Shinchon, and there are mostly women who attend there, but there are a few men also. I have been told they let foreign men into the university, but usually Korean men don’t go there. At Women’s Ewha Hospital, they are connected to the university in name, but they are not a teaching hospital, and I am not passed off to interns. The doctors actually see me and treat me. The doctors at Women’s Ewha Hospital in Mok dong have corrected the problems the interns made at Severance.
At Women’s Ewha Hospital, the subway station is way down the street from them, so you will want to drive or take a taxi. There is always a line of taxis waiting for patients outside of the hospital. I drive, and there is valet parking. I drive my car into the parking lot and leave it running. The attendant comes and gives me a card with my license plate number on it, and I go into the hospital to see a doctor while they park my car. When I am done, I just take the card to the attendant, and I wait inside a glassed in place with a bench for my car. In the hot summer, weather, there is an air conditioner inside the small glass building.
Inside the hospital, I go up to the second floor to the International Clinic. I take the escalators in the main hall and make a U turn back to the left, and the clinic is there on the right. It is much smaller than what you find at Severance. There is one desk, and only a couple of nurses in the clinic. At Severance, there were several chairs in the waiting room, but here, there is just a couch. At Severance and Women’s Ewha Hospital both, there is literature in English for the patients to read while they wait. There is also a television, and at Women’s Ewha hospital, they always have it turned on an English station, but not so at Severance. There are no doctors in the Women’s Ewha Hospital International Clinic. The nurses there talk to you and decide which doctor you should go to see and make an appointment for you. After that, they go with you to your appointment and make sure you understand everything.
If you don’t speak Korean or English, you can let them know, and they also have translators for people of other languages. Today, an Arab couple came in while I was there waiting for my appointment. They couldn’t speak English or Korean, but there was a Korean translator who could speak Arabic. The wife stayed in the clinic sitting beside me while her husband went to see the doctor. She wanted to talk to me, but I only speak a few words or Arabic, and she could only speak a few words of English. However, I learned that she was from The United Arab Emirates, and she learned that I am American. She learned that I came to Korea to work, and I learned that they came to Korea just to see the doctor. Yes, there is a lot of what is called Medical Tourism in Korea because the doctors are good, the hospitals are modern, and the price is affordable.
After you see a doctor, then the English speaking nurse goes with you to help you pay, and there is a special place at the payment desk for foreigners to pay. After you pay, then you have to go to a special machine to get your prescription. Koreans have to be up to date on everything. They have to hire someone special to stand there and help the people use those machines so they can get their prescription. I am sure the original purpose of the machine was for the patients to get their own prescription, but even the Koreans have trouble with those machines, and someone from the hospital has to help everyone.
After you have paid your bill and have your prescription in hand, at Women’s Ewha Hospital, you can go right across the street and get your prescription filled. When I went to Severance, I had to get away from the hospital and find a pharmacy somewhere, but conveniently, there is one right across the street from Women’s Ewha Hospital. There are lots of pharmacies in Korea of all different sizes. If you go to a random pharmacy, they may or may not have your prescription, and you may have to come back the next day for your medicine if they don’t have it when you give them your prescription. However, I like going to the pharmacy across the street from Women’s Ewha Hospital because it is large and always has all the medicine there.
If you go close to any hospital in Korea, you will see people walking around outside in their pajamas. They may even be pushing an IV. They will be taking walks, sitting in a cafe, going to a store, etc. They don’t stay inside in their pajamas or when they have an IV in their arms like they do in America. If you are downtown and see people walking down the street in pajamas, don’t be surprised. There is a hospital close, and after the person has finished their business, they will go back to the hospital.
In America, we have the expression, “I went to the doctor today,” but if a Korean goes to a doctor, that is not what he says. A Korean will say, “I went to the hospital today.” If an American hears this expression, they think it must be serious, but in Korea, it isn’t. Hopefully, this gives you all the information you need if you need to or want to see a doctor in Korea, or if you are just interested in what it is like. By the way, if you are in Korea and have an emergency and need an ambulance, don’t call “911.” Call “119.: