Health Care in Korea

July 01, 2017

Living in Korea provides me with the opportunity to overcome unique and often unforeseen challenges in the most mundane of life activities.

Buying coffee sometimes ends in me wondering if the barista asked if I wanted my coffee to go, or if I had a membership card.

Visiting the bank involves memorizing or writing down the important words I need to know when I get there.

For the most part, these experiences have proven to keep life interesting.

Visiting a doctor in Korea, however, can be one of the... less pleasant experiences. 

Image Copyright @ Jamie
The Basics

For some reason, "going to the doctor" in Korean translates to "going to the hospital" in English. When I first came to Korea and a student was absent, their friends told me the student was hospitalized so I assumed they had broken a limb or fallen into a devastating coma. As I came to learn, this was usually not the case.

There are hospitals for things like inpatient treatment and emergencies. For visits to a doctor, however, the type of clinic you should visit depends on the ailment:
  • 이비인후과 (ee-bee-in-hoo-gwa) - Ear, nose throat
  • 내과 (nay-gwa) - Stomach, digestion
  • 치과 (chee-gwa) - Dentist
  • 안과 (ahn-gwa) - Opthamologist (Vision tests can be conducted at most eye glasses shops; 
  • 한의원 (han-ee-won) - Oriental Medicine Clinic
  • 산부인과 (san-boo-in-gwa) - Gynecologist
  • 피부과 (pee-boo-gwa) - Dermotologist
  • 정형외과 (jeong-hyeong-way-gwa) - Orthopedist
It may sound complicated, but clinics tend to be super efficient and affordable. If you are given a prescription, there is often a pharmacy (약국, yak-gook) on the same block if not in the same building. 

The Reality

As with many things, Korea is great at keeping things simple and convenient. While in Canada you may have to wait for hours in a waiting room and/or weeks for your results, Korea gets things done significantly faster. And cheaper.

Praise aside, not having a firm grasp on the Korean language can cause some anxiety if not complete confusion when it comes to doctors visits. If you're anything like me, the anxiety will deter you from seeking medical attention altogether causing you to let the illness dissipate slowly with the aid of hot tea at home. This behaviour occurs despite knowing that Korea's infamous butt shot can cure literally anything.

A Solution

The Medical Korea Information Center provides a wide variety of services to patients who do not speak Korean, and offer these services in English, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. Some of the services the center provides are help seeking out health institutions, medical services, and medical translations; guidance on VAT refunds related to surgeries; finding solutions for complaints or malpractice (coordinating between agencies, offering legal information); and even tourism information. 

Although the center is located in Seoul (as most things tend to be), it is also possible to contact them by phone and email (details below). This is a service that would be immensely helpful to those of us living hours from Seoul where English-speaking doctors tend to be more sparse. 

If you are able to visit on-site, you can visit the community center which provides free traditional Korean medicine consultations and/or opportunities to try medicinal herbal teas. 

Another service provided by the center is the Korea Medical Reservation online system which allows you to reserve and pay for medical services online.

Despite living in Korea for six years, I can count the number of times that I've visited a doctor/dentist on just one hand. Although the language barrier doesn't entirely explain my avoidance of healthcare, it certainly plays a large part. I'm happy and comforted to know that as time goes by there are increasingly more resources supporting foreigners in Korea. Next step: Having these types of support centers in places other than Seoul. 

For more information about the Medical Korea Information Center:

1577-7129 (within Korea)
+82-1577-7129 (abroad)


2F Shinil Building, Toegye-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea
Operating hours: Monday to Friday 9:00-18:00


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