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Doctors and Medical Care in South Korea

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Find Traditional and Western Health Care in South Korea

There are two kinds of health care in South Korea: traditional Korean medicine, called “hanyak” (한약) and what would be defined as western or modern medical care. Depending on your ailment, the urgency of the care you need, and what you’re willing to pay, each system has different advantages and disadvantages.

Western medicine in South Korea

Most travelers and even Korean citizens use the modern health care system. Financially, the system is neither socialized nor privatized, but rather a combination of both. Workers in South Korea are required to be enrolled in the national health insurance program, a co-pay system for which about 5% of one’s salary is withdrawn, 50% paid by the employer and the other 50% paid by the employee. Compared to other national health care systems, this insurance fee is astoundingly low. You might figure then that the co-pays for medicines and other care must then be extremely high, but this is not the case. Prescription medicines and most minor treatments are relatively inexpensive in South Korea, even without insurance. Here are a few examples of medication costs WITHOUT either national or traveler’s insurance:

Cold medicine (over-the-counter): 2,000W
Prescription allergy medicine (Korean brand): 10,000W
Prescription allergy medicine: (foreign brand): 20,000W

With insurance, of course, these would cost much less. Medical procedures, however, can run up to 200,000W or more without insurance coverage. In other words, common illnesses can be treated cheaply, but more serious ailments or emergencies can cost much more. The average fee for an emergency room visit with insurance is about 40,000W and at least double that without insurance. The average co-pay for a doctor’s visit is about 3-5,000W and 10-12,000W without insurance.

Health care is regarded highly in South Korea and pharmacies (약국), hospitals (병원), and clinics (~의원) dot every other block in cities (in the countryside, you may need to be driven to the nearest pharmacy or hospital). Due to traffic congestion, it is usually faster to walk to a hospital than it is to call for an ambulance, as Koreans don’t recognize any driving manners to expedite the routes of ambulances (on many roads this is not even possible as there are no open passing lanes or shoulders).

One of the most incredible benefits of modern medicine in South Korea is its efficiency. Seeing a doctor in a clinic takes no more than 20 minutes, and a full procedure at a hospital could have you out in less than an hour! With the entire country unified under one health plan, there is no need for referrals or paperwork, and coordination between hospital departments is managed fluidly with advanced computer systems that transfer patient information and treatment data.

Also, nearly all doctors in the country (including the countryside) speak at least some degree of English, and if they cannot speak English, they can understand it. This is due to the lack of translated medical textbooks available in the country; therefore, doctors and nurses study medicine in English and with English materials. While they may not be able to hold down a regular conversation, they will usually be able to identify the name of your symptoms and report your diagnosis in English. If you think you need care in English, it’s better to go to a hospital rather than a clinic, and you can even pay a little bit more to see an actual foreign doctor at Yonsei Severance Hospital in Seoul or at several clinics located in the Gangnam or Itaewon districts of the city.

One disadvantage that some Americans might point out is that sometimes the medical care in South Korea is TOO fast and lacks thoroughness. Many times, doctors and hospital workers can end up sacrificing quality for quantity as they try to push through the greatest amount of patients in the shortest time possible (this is no doubt due to the fact that city hospitals can be suffocatingly crowded and doctors in South Korea make significantly less than those in other developed countries).

One thing you must be sure to do whenever you see a doctor is tell him what medications you are currently taking, as most doctors will not bother to ask before describing you medication that could possibly counteract. Most of the time doctors are not questioned in South Korea, so if you are concerned or have questions about your treatment, you must be aggressive in posing the questions yourself.

Some patients have also suffered the effects of being overprescribed medication. In general, prescription medical tends to be given in much larger amounts than in other countries. Oftentimes you will be prescribed a “pill cocktail” advising you to take up to 6 pills 3 times per day. This is because South Koreans do not prefer to take time off of work and want medication to act as soon as possible. It’s always a good idea to have the doctor write down the names of the medications for you (if you cannot read the Korean on the package) or look them up online, especially if you are worried that they might counteract with something you currently take or if you have allergies to certain medications.

Traditional medicine in South Korea

Diagram from an ancient Korean medicine manual

Traditional Korean medicine is a good option if you have time to spare, have a long-term mild ailment (such as muscle pain or headaches), or simply want to experience Asian culture. Traditional clinics are known as “hanuiwons” (한의원) and are only slightly less prevalent than western-style clinics. Most hanuiwons accept national insurance, but some may not accept traveler’s insurance (and in rare cases, some don’t accept insurance at all).

You can expect to experience some acupuncture, herbal medicine, and some chiropractic work at a traditional clinic; you CANNOT expect any of the doctors or personnel there to speak English. While a doctor will not forbid you from making just a single visit if you are only visiting temporarily, the effects of traditional medicine and acupuncture are not usually felt unless there is consistent weekly treatment. Herbal remedies usually include some forms of ginseng, black garlic, mushrooms, the marrow of deer antlers, and a variety of plants and herbs. Traditional medicine is considered just as effective as modern medicine, but takes longer to take effect.

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Filed under: Asia, Medical Care, South Korea

About the Author:

Tiffany Zappulla is VagabondJourney.com’s Korea correspondent and travel tech reviewer. She pinched pennies throughout college, sacrificing parties, treats, and occasionally even food so she could start traveling to foreign lands. So far she’s toured Scotland, Spain, and Japan (twice) on a budget, and spent three years living in South Korea actively engaged in the culture and lifestyle. Aside from her qualifications in ESL, Tiffany does other freelance writing and odd jobs. She is currently living the broke American life for awhile before deciding on her next adventure. Connect with her on Google+. has written 31 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.