So the other day I had an... incident. I don't want to get into details. Let's just say my back and I decided to have philosophical differences. I wanted to do things like exercise, or work on my novel, or go to the store, and my back was all, "Hah! Well we'll just see how well you can manage any of that when I'm twisting your spine into a pretzel shape!" In short, I am laid up for a bit, and I thought I'd share my recent experiences with Korean hospitals. 1) EPIK employment comes with a policy in the Korean National Health Insurance Corporation. This covers 50% of all healthcare costs. Now, if you're an American, this sounds like a terrifyingly small number, but remember that Korea is not the United States. Due to factors too numerous to go into here, Korean healthcare costs are significantly lower than in the US. As an example, when my back went out--and I mean out--we took a trip to the ER. I was admitted and hospitalized for two days. I had IVs, fluids, medications, X-Rays, CTs, two PT sessions, and blood work, as well as consultations with several doctors of different specialties. My bill for all this extravagance? $450.00. My ongoing physical therapy runs me a devastating $8.00 per session. Yes, major injuries will cost you, but it won't be the astronomical fees you'd encounter in the US.
2) Most doctors speak some English. I have yet to find a doctor who didn't have a smattering of words, and a few were almost completely fluent. One of the ER docs even went to school in California. If you do manage to get spectacularly unlucky, the doctors will still know medical terminology, since many of those words are Konglish additions to the Korean language. However, if you want to be sure to have a doctor who speaks English, ask your co-teacher. They'll be more than happy to call around and find you the help you need.
3) The quality of healthcare is high, with a few caveats. Korean hospitals have all the diagnostic tools that American hospitals have, and they have the technical expertise necessary to use them. I never felt like I was in less than expert hands. HOWEVER, if Korean doctors have a failing, it is a tendency to leap to a conclusion quickly and then throw pills at you until the problem goes away. This can lead to some difficulties if your initial problem is misdiagnosed. But, as with all things medical, the key to avoid this problem is to be as clear and concise as possible.
Anyway, overall, I had pretty positive experiences. Mind you, I was drugged out of my gourd (muscle relaxants will do that), so my memories are a little fuzzy. Erin tells me that the ER was a veritable circus of madness and medical emergencies, but the only things I directly recall? The ward where I slept included four other guys, all of whom snored (extravagantly). One of them had a nosy granny who poked her head in to chatter at me periodically (I had no idea what she was saying). I had kimchi for breakfast... hospital kimchi, which is not really the best kind. Oh, and it turns out that chopsticks are hard to manipulate when one cannot sit upright.
Update: Erin's perspective Sam was heavily medicated for much of his hospital experience, so here are a few more thoughts from the person who handled logistics:
- Korean doctors do speak excellent English. But the rest of the hospital staff may not. This makes things difficult when trying to fill out admission forms at 2am, find the supply department (you have to pre-pay for IV tubing, etc), or figure out where the heck they moved your husband while you were in the bathroom. If at all possible, bring a Korean friend to translate.
- Hospitals do not provide amenities like soap, towels, or even drinking water for their patients. Families are expected to provide these things, and many also bring meals and essentially camp out in the hospital room to care for sick relatives.
- The general level of hygiene in local hospitals is not to American standards. The ER bathroom had a single, shared towel. Sam's bed had dirty blankets. I was patted on the face by a sympathetic hospital volunteer who's gloves were wet from helping a patient use the toilet. Private clinics and major hospitals have much better standards.
- In Korea, IVs are considered a magical cure-all. They're even used to treat colds and headaches (it's usually a vitamin drip). No matter what your condition is, you will probably get an IV.
- Big hospitals in Seoul have International Clinics specifically to help foreigners. They can help schedule appointment and interpret results. They also have volunteer translators, who are helpful, noble, and good. I can highly recommend Seoul National University Hospital for this.