The Seoul Diaries: Healthcare in Korea

I never thought I would get sick in Korea but here we are. 6 months in. For the last month, I have had to visit multiple hospitals for various reasons which is why I believe that this post is a necessary read for anyone traveling abroad (especially in Korea) because you never know when you might get hurt, injured, or sick. I thought that I would be fine (besides the ongoing pandemic of course)… but I was wrong.

In this post, I will be covering some helpful tips, my own experiences, and some useful Korean words and phrases to use when visiting hospitals and clinics.

Health Insurance

IT IS IMPORTANT!

YOU NEED IT!

While Korea mandates that all foreigner travelers be automatically enrolled in the South Korean national health insurance program (which you have to pay an estimated $55 per month; make sure to factor this into your budget), I also opted to pay for the health insurance coverage that Ole Miss provides to students studying abroad called CISI. This was probably the best decision that I made because they came into good use during this past month. Early on, I had to go to a hospital to get something checked out and CISI’s service team (help center, billing, global assistance) were all very thorough and helpful in finding me hospitals in Korea that worked under their coverage and made the process very smooth. The local global assistance team helped schedule my appointments and gave me all the needed information to get there. While I did bring a friend to help with some translations at first, one of my doctors spoke English, so it made it a bit easier for me to talk to them.

The health insurance company also handles all of the billing and communications with the hospitals so you don’t have to worry or stress about that aspect.

The only downside to getting scheduled at any medical clinic or hospital is that you have to take an official PCR test EVERY TIME you schedule an appointment, even if you don’t feel any COVID-related symptoms. By now, the staff at the Korea University Hospital COVID testing center know me too well – haha.

After-Hours Emergency Care Experience

Remember how I said that anything can happen to you while abroad? I meant it. Seriously. This experience didn’t happen to me, but I was apart of what would turn into a crazy night so I will share it briefly with you. After a dance practice had ended, I met some new people and we were all practicing by ourselves for a bit in the mirrors. All of a sudden, one of the people fell down on the floor and looked to be hurt. After asking her where she hurt herself, she said that her knee area was in a lot of pain. While we first considered just icing it, we advised her to go to a hospital just in case because she could barely walk on it. The two other dancers and I helped the injured dancer to the nearest hospital (via a bus ride and a long hill…). However, when we got to the front desk security guards, they told her that they couldn’t accept her at that gate of the hospital and that she had to go to the emergency care wing instead – which was all the way on the other side of the hospital. *sigh*

Luckily, one of the people got her a wheelchair so she didn’t have to walk and the three of us took turns pushing her down hills and the winding streets of South Korea. It was chaotic. I ended up being the map navigator for the night and we finally made it to the emergency care center. The dynamic was the three of us standing around the injured girl in a wheelchair who had a family relative on the phone to do translations with the hospital staff for 20 minutes.

The gist of the night was that they couldn’t accept her into the hospital because there were no spaces to fit her as they had a wide number of COVID-related cases that same night. Did I mention that this was all happening around 10:50p.m.? The only options were for them to send her to a different hospital (which didn’t guarantee that a doctor would be able to see and treat her) or for her to go home, ice it, and schedule an appointment with a doctor in the morning. I wasn’t in her shoes but I would be stressed to the max. I sadly had to leave after hearing this because the last bus was about to leave and I needed to get home, but I hope that she has a speedy recovery~!

Hospital Experiences

Expect to ride a lot of escalators during your visit

So just in the month of April alone, I have gone to the hospital 4 times already. I’m not saying that I am sick of hospitals right now, but I am. Here are some things that I have experienced and noted about Korean hospitals:

  1. Korean hospitals are crowded everyday and can feel like the inside of a mall sometimes. I was given a map on more than one occasion so that I could just find the right waiting area to go to
  2. Reading signs saves lives!
  3. When you first come to an appointment, you get your blood pressure, weight, and height taken and measured. In the States, this would normally be done by a nurse, but in Korea, it is all done by robots and technology! I was surprised to stand on the height stool and have it lower the bar thing onto my head automatically. If you have to do the blood pressure machine for the first time, make sure to take the little slip of paper that it produces at the end! The nurses need that and I forgot to get it the first time.
  4. Appointments (especially at big hospitals) happen very quickly (in and out) so make sure that you get all of your questions asked and don’t feel rushed.
  5. Make sure that you advocate for yourself (wise words from my mother <3). Yes, you may not know all the phrases to describe your condition, but you can always ask for help and assistance. Or use Papago (there is no shame in that). The first time I went to a hospital where the specialist didn’t speak any English to me (even though I was told that I would get a translator, but wasn’t provided one), I still tried asking questions about what I had. When I had to go back for another consultation because the doctor told me that I had one thing but wrote something different on my record, I made sure to ask the International Health Center to send me a translator so that nothing got lost in translation. That time, I did get someone to help me out in understanding the medical diagnosis and where I could go from there. She was super nice and helped me find my way around the hospital afterwards. I felt 100x better after that visit. If the hospital doesn’t provide translation services, try to find one with an English speaking doctor (that insurance can cover) or try asking a friend who is good at Korean and English to come along and help you!

Pharmacy Procedures

Another part about visiting hospitals are the entry/exit procedures. After you finish your appointment, you are told to go to the billing station where they give you the medical bill and then a slip of paper which you have to take to these large tablet screens (imagine ordering at a Burger King on a touch screen). After scanning the barcode on that paper, it prints out two copies or your prescriptions (the English copy for you to keep and the Korean copy which you have to give to the pharmacy). You will also be given an option as to where you want the prescription to be sent.

For KU students, I highly recommend having it be sent to the 미래약국 (Future Pharmacy) because the staff there are super helpful and it is only a three minute walk down a hill from Korea University’s hospital. There is also a really kind pharmacist that is usually there that can speak English and help explain your medications to you in detail. Just walk in, go to the front desk, hand one of the staff your Korean prescription slip, and wait a few minutes for them to fill it.

The best part about Korean pharmacies is that they give you your prescription in this packet form that is split and labeled for what times of day you have to take your medicine (2 pills in the morning, 2 at night, etc). It is a really productive system and makes it easy to take your medicines on-the-go if you aren’t at home.

Also, if you stop by a pharmacy to buy medications:

  1. Don’t go on weekends (Saturday/Sunday). They are almost ALWAYS closed 🙁
  2. If you are looking for at-home COVID test kits, they now sell them in a pack of 2 for $10. It is a bargain because they used to be $6 each two months ago. Just go in and ask for a 진단키트 (jin-dan-ki-teu) and they’ll direct you to them. Just make sure to read the signs on the doors because sometimes they are all sold out! I learned this recently, but you can also go and get these test kits at convenience stores like CU too if you need to use one on the weekends.
  3. It is normal for the pharmacist to pick 3 different medications off the shelf and give to you instead of just one medication (most medications are super cheap and affordable too!)
  4. Use the phrases below to explain what type of medicine you need

Helpful Medical Vocab/Phrases

Lastly, here is a short list of words and phrases that you can try to use during your appointment if you ever need to go to a hospital or clinic in Korea. I hope that they are useful!

Phrases:

  • 예약을 했어요 – I made an appointment (when asked why you came)
  • 제 목이 조금 아파서 어떻게 해요? – My throat hurts a little bit. What should I do about it?
  • 지난 주/(day of the week – 월화수목금토일)부터 시작했어요 – It (my symptoms) have started since last week
  • 몸살 났어요 – I have body chills/aches
  • 배탈 났어요 – I got food poisoning
  • 배가 아파요 – My stomach aches
  • 저는 열이나 코로나19는 없는데 목이 아파요 – I don’t have a fever or COVID, but my throat hurts
  • 제 코로나 결과를 음성이었어요 – My COVID test results were negative (you’ll be asked this a lot)
  • __verb__했을 때, ___place on body___ 다쳤어요 – While doing (this activity), I hurt (this part of my body)

Vocab:

  • 목마름 – dry throat
  • 인후통 – sore throat
  • 기침 – cough
  • 코 스프레이 – nose spray
  • 알레르기 – allergy
  • 음성 – negative result
  • 양성 – positive result
  • 열 – fever (37.5 or higher)
  • 치통 – toothache
  • 팔 – arm
  • 발 – foot
  • 무릎 – knee
  • 다리 – leg

Tip: If you have severe seasonal allergies, make sure to bring that medication and accompanying nasal spray with you before you leave to Korea! I forgot about it completely and, now that spring has come, I had to buy some here. Nothing beats Zyrtec and Claritin though.

On a lighter note, I though to add these memes about hospitals just because. Enjoy!

Credit to the original creators 🙂

Kermit Memes for All!
It is definietly cheaper in Korea, but still…
This actually happened to me and PAIN. JUST PAIN. I’m still bruised…
The way I cackled at this one.

I hope that you never have to visit a hospital during your time abroad, but – if you do – I hope that this information can be helpful to you as a guide!

Stay safe and see you in the next blog post~

*The writing and photos here are meant for use on finsupabroad.com and are not to be copied or redistributed by other entities without permission from the author.

Leave a Reply