Medical care in Korea may not be like the care that you receive in your own country. If you expect to need medical attention during travel, we recommend bringing a summary of your medical records and prescriptions with you. The moment you settle down in the hotel, you may want locate the closest and best medical center or physician. You can check with your concierge to determine which of the hospitals and international clinics listed here is the closest. (See hospitals and clinics or check our yellow pages).
In the event of a medical emergency, take along a Korean-speaking companion if possible, as hospital or clinic intake personnel often have limited English-speaking skills. Alternatively, you can write out your medical symptoms and/or condition since most Koreans can easily read English medical terminology. That said, the English abilities of staff in the clinics and in the hospitals are steadily improving and it is not unusual to run into people at all stages of the system who speak it and understand it quite well.
A number of hospitals in Seoul have clinics staffed by English-speaking physicians and nurses who can coordinate appointments with specialists. Many Korean physicians do not display their license or other credentials, and it may take a certain level of diplomacy is needed to find out their qualifications or area of specialization. Although they function as general or family practitioners in the clinics, their training was not necessarily in those fields. In many cases, the doctor has set up or been hired in an international clinic mainly because he/she trained abroad (usually the U.S.) and speaks English. However, the doctors are very willing to connect you with a specialist should you need one and will interpret for you, either directly or through their staff.
Medical Emergency Information Line 1339
Emergency Medical Information Center (1339) has bilingual staff that speak Korean plus English, Japanese, or Chinese so they can interpret for you if you need help communicating with Korean medical staff while you are at a clinic or hospital. The staff at 1339 can also give medical advice over the phone and directly connect you with emergency services when necessary. So if you call and describe your symptoms, 1339 can let you know what kind of treatment you need, and, if it is deemed serious, immediately connect you with emergency services. (K4E Note: In early 2012, K4E received reports that English-speakers were not always available on all shifts, for example, Sunday mornings.)
- Koreans do not have the same sense of privacy that Westerners do, so don't be embarrassed if the doctor asks to examine you in front of other patients. If this is an issue for you, you can ask to have a screen put up. If possible, the staff will usually try to comply.
- The wait time for medical treatment in hospitals can be quite long, even in the emergency unit.
- In an emergency, you should take some cash with you (at least W500,000-W1,000,000) because some hospitals accept certain credit cards only. There are ATM machines located throughout most hospitals, some of which allow access to you home account if you are visiting and don't have a Korean bank account.
- An international medical insurance card is not recognized as a form or pre-payment. You will have to pay your medical bill in full in cash before you can be discharged. If you have global coverage, you can then submit the receipt to them for reimbursement.
Some private hospitals (a small number) do not want to accept National Health Insurance and while this is allegedly not legal, there is little that one can apparently do. As long as you are a legal resident of Korean, you can enroll in the National Health Insurance plan - if your employer does not provide coverage, you can enroll yourself. Compared to the medical insurance policy rates in some Western countries, the cost is not prohibitive.
- If you are admitted to the hospital through the international clinic, your bill will likely be higher than if you had gone directly to emergency or been admitted by one of the hospital’s other departments.
- As in many Asian countries, family members are generally expected to provide hospital patients with much of the non-medical care (bathing, feeding, etc.) that is usually provided by nursing staff in other areas of the world. Most families bring food to the hospital and sleep on the floor or sofa in the patient’s room. It is possible to hire private nurses, but they usually have to be given very specific instructions and they may not speak English. Some hospitals have VIP suites that resemble 5-star hotel rooms and may even include sleeping areas for family, a fully equipped kitchen, and more.
- Korean physicians sometimes give the worst case prognosis first and then go on to the less serious ones. Don’t panic, or think you’ve been misdiagnosed. It’s just a question of style and culture.
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