Korean Health Care

Living as a healthy, childless, young American under the Korean healthcare system is nothing short of magical. It’s cheap, accessible and from all of my experiences good. Koreans also seem to be mostly pleased with their nationally run health care.

We found that we more often used the medical system because it was cheap.  Also we were asked to get a health check once and year and when we traveled abroad sometimes we needed to get certain immunizations. My knowledge of the intricate details of the system are slim and if health care is as good outside of the cities, but here is a little about my experience and my friend’s experiences with the system in a big Korean city.

  • Basics– The healthcare system in Korea is run by the government.  Prices are regulated and as a result relatively cheap. From what I understand you are required to have health insurance to get treated.  My acupuncturist could not treat my friend visiting from the US because he did not have any type of Korean insurance. But at the same time some of my friends were not enrolled in the program and they could go to the dentist for a $50 cleaning.  Furthermore, we didn’t always have to show our insurance card in medical situations (pharmacies, eye care). But there were other times that having insurance got us treatment and a cheap price. Our school enrolled for us and took a little out of our wages every month. We found that, despite being healthy and young, being insured came in handy.

  • Coverage–  Most everything you need will be covered with the national plan, but it doesn’t cover everything.  For example, cancer is not covered by the national plan. Some Koreans get cancer insurance or coverage from a private insurer to cover what the national plan doesn’t. But your basics; getting a checkup, x-rays, etc are covered by the national plan. I would think that these private insurers can also get you cheaper options (like catastrophic plans) but be sure that your doctor or hospital recognizes your private plan, they don’t always.

  • Pricing– My wife and I often went for acupunture and we would walk out paying about $3.00 per visit.  That’s right $3.00!! Generally, you will pay 30% of the cost and the government will pick up the rest. My wife got an eye exam and glasses for somewhere around $50 and I don’t remember flashing our insurance card. We always walked out of the hospital or pharmacy (the few times we went) and felt like we got a deal.

  • The Good– It’s cheap and from all of my experiences good. Koreans go to the doctor way more often than Americans because it is generally easy to see a doctor and cheap. Colds are knocked out quicker and other issues are detected earlier.  Don’t be afraid to go see a doctor in Korea. They will make sure that the foreigner gets to where he or she needs to go.

  • The Bad– We found that Korean dentists often wanted to fill 15 cavities in our friends mouths and often Koreans would stay overnight in the hospital for something we would never dream having to stay in the hospital for (broken leg, flu, etc). Usually, you can veto the suggestion, but sometimes because of language barriers things are just done.  Korean doctors are also influenced by the pharmaceutical companies just like they are in America.  Just be cognizant of over diagnosis or of needless prescriptions.  However, in my experience at the doctor I never felt they were doing too much or too little. Be as suspicious and trusting as you are of doctors back home. 

Please supplement this post with the following:

The best explanation of Korea’s health insurance can be found in what is becoming my new favorite blog, “Ask a Korean!” This guy mixes Korean humor with good writing and with a good understanding of Korea, Koreans and Koreaness.

ESL Teacher board also gives a good explanation of the plan for foreigners.

Be sure to check out korea4expats pages on health insurance and health care in Korea.  It is very informative.

Most importantly, don’t forget about the foreign community around you.  Many of them come from a similar medical background as you and can help point you in the right direction. Generally, we only went to the doctors recommended by our ex-pat friends or our good Korean friends. But we also found that while in Gwangju, Chosun Hospital did their job well and had a very helpful and friendly staff. Also we had to go to Mokpo’s Immunization Office near the port to get a yellow fever shot for India and found the people in this office so friendly and helpful we didn’t want to leave.

Also, most everything you will need medically you can find in Korea. My wife had some issues finding contacts that worked with her eyes but that was it. If you have special needs, please be sure to check with someone before you go.