[Seoul Survival Series] Korean Hospitals

Gotta love Korean signage

As much as I enjoy the fact that doctors, scans, procedures and medication are so much cheaper in South Korea- I still never meant to take the full tour.

Today, for the second time in my life, I am scheduled for a brain MRI. While I’m not as anxious as the first, I’m not sure I will like being alone. Last time, I scheduled the appointment expecting no one to come along; but my mother insisted and I was glad she did. There’s nothing quite like the reassurance that there is someone there in case you need them.

In case you don’t know the backstory, 5 years ago I was diagnosed with a condition called hyperprolactinemia. This condition is typically diagnosed when it’s discovered that a woman has higher than normal levels of prolactin (the hormone secreted after pregnancy) and her body is fooled into thinking she is pregnant when she is not. The pituitary gland in your brain is what secretes the hormone and a tumor is usually to blame for it’s misbehavior. My last go-round there was nothing to be found; but the levels are up again and so the docs are wanting to take another look. That was in the states.

My real introduction into the Korean medical system happened a mere 2 months after I arrived in Korea when I had a shooting pain in my back. I was taken to the emergency room and eventually led to surgery to remove my gallbladder. Oh, and while they were in there decided to check on some growth on my liver.

Now, if only hospitals had punch cards. . .

With all my experience, I thought I’d be remiss not to help others understand how to navigate Korean hospitals and offer some tips on how to have a successful experience.

First of all, you need to know how to find a hospital. You can look around for this: 병원 (byeong-won) OR if you need to take a taxi you can say “byeong-won ga juseyo” which is a stripped version of “take me to the hospital please”. I try to keep this simple and not be too worried about grammar since you are in pain.

When you get to the hospital, you will be greeted by nurses who might have little to no English, and until they determine what’s wrong with you, you won’t get introduced to a doctor. So you can point to the place of discomfort and say “yogi (mani) apayo” again a lose translation of “this (really) hurts.” Hopefully at this point they will give you some pain medication (if needed) until the doctor can make it. Most doctors will have some English, especially if you are at a university hospital where so many doctors have studied/worked abroad.

After your first emergency visit, if you need a check-up (or if you never make it to the emergency room but need to go to the doc) you should know that your first stop is the cashier. Usually, you will find multiple stations and you must take a number. When it’s your turn, proceed to the desk but don’t be surprised if some ajumma tries to cut in on your turn if don’t get there right away. Don’t be afraid to be persistent, they are. The cashier just needs your alien registration card (ARC) to pull up your records and then will ask you to pay for your doc visit in advance. After you have made payment, you can proceed to the department you are visiting and see the doc.

Another piece of advice I would offer is know the costs of procedures in advance. It seems Koreans don’t typically question the doctor and their methodology. Which is fine because Korean’s can all get on payment plans to pay for their procedures. However, as a foreigner, you are not eligible for this option. Don’t walk into a doctor’s office, have them tell you they want to do a scan or ultrasound which they can perform right now without asking how much it will cost. Korea’s care is much less expensive than America’s but our foreign employee care isn’t awesome by any means so don’t be afraid to ask unless you don’t mind being stuck paying a huge bill the day you received the treatment.

Where and what was the strangest hospital experience you have ever had? Share your story and help me take my mind off my own medical dilemmas.

UPDATE: The MRI was quick and somewhat painless. Those saline needles for all the termojunk they put in your body are THICK! I expect a large bruise tomorrow making me look like some sort of heroin junkie.
Thanks for all the well wishes everyone!


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