Monday, August 7, 2006

Health care in Seoul, South Korea Rocks!

You know what? Americans tend to be incredibly arrogant most of the times it seems. However, don’t take it that I'm bashing American’s only, because I’ve found that Europeans and Canadians aren't much better. However, as I'm an American so most of my observations are about other Americans. Why am I making this observation?

Well, I remember when I first considered moving to South Korea. Friends of mine freaked out for all sorts of reasons, but the biggest one was my health as they were concerned about the quality of health care that would be here for me. It was assumed that South Korea was a country that had to be in the virtual stone ages. Now I realize that the standards of living in America versus some other places is huge, but modern South Korea is very advanced and, in some ways, more advanced than the States.

I’m an insulin dependent diabetic. I have juvenile diabetes, but I was lucky as I started showing symptoms and was diagnosed fairly late on. As a result, I was admitted to Cedars-Sinai. I had the best doctor and nurses, and, overall I just had a wonderful experience. That gave me a great start on diabetes management. When I started working I had an HMO and had an okay doctor. However, I soon found out that without money and insurance that the well runs dry very fast. I was okay initially, but in law school I didn't have health insurance and with a pre-existing condition any I'd find would be expensive or would exclude coverage for, my diabetes, the one thing I needed to insure. I had a close call that was very scary, but after law school once again got lucky and had an excellent physician when I had another HMO.

Here in Korea I’m covered under their social health care system. I call it the health care discount system because that’s essentially what it is. I don’t have a deductible or a co-pay. They just take a certain percentage off the total of your bill. Since I’m diabetic and I have an insulin pump, I go to my doctor at Hanyang University Hospital doctor once a month. My doctor, Dr. Ahn, is awesome. My nurse, Ms. Koo, is the best nurse I’ve ever had. Once a month I get a full spectrum of blood work, a prescription refill (my meds are around $15.00 a month), and consultation with my doctor. I have to say that one big reason I like South Korea is because, if you find the right doctor, the health care here is great. Best of all, it’s affordable.

That leads me to why I’m discussing this now. I’m working and I fell down face first on the pavement walking with my class. I noticed a bloody cut on my hand and got that taken care of right away. However, I didn’t notice that something had gotten into my eye until it was Sunday and I was home in Seoul. To make a long story short, I ended up with a scratched cornea.

Ouch!!! It’s horrible.

I went to Yonsei Severance Hospital simply because I was in a huge amount of pain, and I knew I’d have the least trouble there as a high amount of their staff is bilingual. I speak enough Korean to put most Koreans at ease and then usually they’ll notice that my Korean isn’t up to speed and get me help.

It cost me roughly $50.00 (or 50,000 Korean won). They took me into the triage section and asked me what happened and got my medical history. Then they took me in to flush out my eye with sterile saline which was incredibly painful. I was then referred to an ophthalmologist who did a comprehensive eye exam and discovered that I’d scratched my cornea. He explained what he’d prescribe for me and what I should and shouldn’t do. He also prescribed me a stack of drugs and gave me a shot of antibiotics to ensure that I won’t get an infection. So on top of my $50.00 I had to pay around $15.00 for the huge sack of drugs I received on the way out of the ER.

Now I’m walking around with gauze taped over my eye, a big sack full of drugs and a somewhat boring story of falling over onto my face at work. But what I have is my peace of mind that if something goes wrong I can afford to go to the ER. I have access to great medical care that I can afford.

I can’t say I feel the same way when I’m living and working at home in the States.

That’s just incredibly sad.

Wednesday, August 9th - Update

For those of you who've asked, I'm doing much better and the patch is off. Here is a picture to prove it. These pictures were taken at 천안 역, Cheonan Station, in South Korea as I've been doing a short-term job there. So this is chipper me at the end of the work day sweltering on the platform waiting for my train. I commute one hour each way everyday because even though I have accommodation in Cheonan it doesn't have air conditioning and my apartment in Seoul does. Plus, there is the benefit of no hyper campers knocking on my door; the kids tend to like me. Plus, I don't have a roommate to worry about at home.

Anyway, all is well with my eye for now.

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  1. Here's how that story would have gone in the US--

    You fall down and hurt your eye.
    Drive yourself to ER.
    You fill out numerous forms.
    Long wait to see doctor.
    No specialist available.
    Saline rinse, bandage, and come back Monday.
    If you have insurance, $150 for ER visit, if not, $500.
    Monday you call for appt. with eye specialist.
    No appt. available till Juvember of 3010, but you can come in and see GP at 3.
    You come in to see GP at 3.
    He asks you why you didn't make appt with eye specialist.
    Saline rinse and another bandage with drugs this time. Costs $250.
    Six months later you lose sight in your eye.

  2. Hahahahahahaha!

    I would say that's pretty much what you'd get. I forgot to mention that my parents paid out of pocket for my stay at Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai got a big check and I got the best care available because that's what Cedars-Sinai offers as it's in swanky West L.A.

    My specialist at Yonsei Severance Hospital was great. It was some poor guy stuck on the Sunday shift in a department that is usually bustling with people during the weekday. They had a nursing assistant escort me to him because they didn't want the foreigner to get lost in their big medical center (and I would have). When we got there, he was sitting alone in a dimly lit room writing something on the computer hoping his cell phone would ring. In the States he wouldn't have been on that shift at all because the hospital would want to keep costs down.

    He was great. I fell in love with him, but well, I wasn't in a flirty mood as I was in intense pain. However, his bedside manner was great and he took good care of me. He even spoke Korean to me, instead of assuming I was a stupid foreigner.

    Overall, an awesome experience. Now it's time for me to flush my eye with drops and get to work.

  3. OUCH! Sorry to hear about your cornea.

    Yeah, I continue to be amazed over not just the fact that American health insurance is so piss-poor, but that not enough Americans are pissed off enough to do something about it.

    *reflecting on a news segment I saw earlier today*

    Say...maybe THAT'S why sales of sleeping pills have gone up in this country. People prefer to be asleep at the switch. Maybe they think that when they wake up they'll find their life has all been just a dream. Or something like that.

  4. Thanks for your condolences over my eye pain. It's better now. I have no patch and I can see.

    My solution after the failed Hilary Clinton health pain and a few close calls where I realized that I had to be rich to get decent care?

    Leave the country and go live and work somewhere else. I do pop in for vacation from time to time :)

    So far, so good.

  5. Hi! Thank you so much for the information in your post. I know it is over a year old... and I was wondering if you could give me an update on the healthcare front. I am also a type 1 diabetic on a pump, thinking about teaching abroad... your post has moved Korea to the top of my "where I want to teach" list. One question... does the $15 prescription copay include everything? Test strips, insulin and pump supplies?

    I'd appreciate any information you can share. Thanks!!!

  6. The Korean system is a social healthcare system, so for diabetics who are insured back home in the States moving here is much more expensive. I was insured when I moved because I quit my job to come here.

    However, prior to that I went through law school and had a VERY scary medical emergency which landed me in the hospital and proved to be ridiculously expensive. Lucky me, the hospital had a trust of some sort that covered me when they realized I was a poor student (I was admitted unconscious...I shudder to think where I would have gone had I been alert and told them I had no medical insurance.) Why it's not REQUIRED that grad students in California get coverage through their schools, I have no idea.

    Anyway, from that scare, I'm happy for the flexibility I get on the Korean system, which is a discount system. I don't know the specific numbers, but I go to a university hospital and I see a specialist. That costs more than going to a local clinic. I pay on average maybe 80,000 to 100,000 won out pocket. That includes prescriptions. I do have to pay for test strips and pump supplies too. It's not as cheap as medical coverage back home when you have insurance. We're talking about maybe 150,000 won a month maybe. That's 15 times a monthly copay, so that's a consideration. Also, I'd make sure your pump manufacturer actually had a vendor here. I have a Minimed pump and they're here.

    When it comes to healthcare in Korea, I'm looking at it from the perspective of being in the incredibly scary position of not having insurance at all. That's a big reality for a lot of working Americans.

  7. Thank heavens for Google. I too am a Type I diabetic on a Minimed pump and am considering teaching abroad in Korea. My biggest concern, of course, being the availability/access/cost of insulin pump supplies (as well as Humalog insulin). If you're still in Korea (I know this post is old) and have any additional information about the healthcare system in Korea and diabetic treatment within that country, I would greatly appreciate it! Thank you for this post/explanation of how the system works there. Greatly reduces some of my concerns about living abroad.

  8. I'm still here. For how much longer, I don't know but, for now, still here.

    I haven't bought a box of infusion sets in awhile but I did get a call that the vendor changed. It's not like back home where you have insurance and a deductible for prescription meds. Here you're going to pay out of pocket for test strips (they're roughly about half the price that they are in the States) and you'll have to pay out of pocket for infusion equipment for your pump. You'll get an insurance card, which is more like a medical discount card. It just makes medical costs cheaper across the board. I go to the doctor every 4 to 8 weeks. Each time it costs me about 120,000 won (about $120 USD) depending on what tests he orders for next time. I've got both diabetes and a thyroid disorder though, so I'm taking more tests. Also, you'd need to get yourself to a university affiliated hospital. The little clinics just don't have endos equipped to treat diabetics. They can prescribe you insulin in a pinch but for diabetes management my experience was not good.

    Maybe if you have medical insurance back home you can get an international policy that might cover you. I'm not sure. That's me thinking as I type. Otherwise, you're talking about maybe 100,000 to 120,000 won per box (that's around $100 to $120 USD, a bit more with the exchange rate all messed up. It's just easier to do it one to one).

    Oh, bring a stash of glucose tablets 'cause those I've NEVER seen here. I buy a bunch when I'm home or have them shipped over. They have candy and sweet drinks you can get but I prefer the discipline of a measured amount of glucose.

    Anyway, it's almost 2:30am here and it's way past my bedtime. Post again if that didn't answer all your questions or write a short comment that you don't want published with your email and I'll reply that way.

  9. Whew that's a relief to read your blog entry. I'm leaving in about a week or so to teach in Seoul, Korea (for a whole year). I was nervous about receiving medical care. I'm a relatively healthy person, but I'll be needing some follow up care for a pap smear. My insurance will cover 5o% of the cost. Well good to know that I'll be in good hands.

  10. Well, I've been here for a whole 8 years. One thing I'll miss when I leave in a couple of weeks is the accessible and affordable medical care.

  11. I also am grateful for Google, because I've been searching for someone who experienced diabetic health care in South Korea for sometime now.

    My question is this: I am a type-1 diabetic as well, and I'm also considering teaching English abroad. What I am wondering is if they issue the standard syringe and vile medications that I'm used to here in the States. I'm not at all expecting to find exact or dead on matches to the the supplies I've received stateside, but If I could find adequate substitutes, I'd quell most of my worries. I don't have the pump, but would consider it if it is offered there in Korea.

    Also, do you think the health care in the surrounding suburbs of Seoul is as good as it in Seoul itself? Or would it be best to stay as close to Seoul as possible in order to have access to diabetic care? I ask this because I'd think it to be at the heart of one's decision to teach near or away from Seoul, especially if the foreigner has a medical condition like type-1 diabetes.

    I am so glad that you posted your experience, because I did not want diabetes to hinder my personal horizons. Yes, it is imperative that it is taken care of, because our livelihood depends on it, but I did not want to succumb to to the pressures of others saying things like "you can't do it because you're sick" or "I wouldn't if I were you. You need the care we have here."

    Thank you so much, and I hope you can get back to me soon!

  12. You're welcome, and sorry to be brief. I'm in a mood :(

    The same needles, and maybe some of the same insulins. Maybe not the latest stuff but I'm on Humalog, and I switched to that in Korea. When I first arrived, I was on ultralente and regular I can't say if which long acting ones they have there. Initially, I did bring a bucket of supplies with me and refilled those when I went home for the first year or so. Then I stopped traveling home and used the insulins they had there.

    They have diabetics there, both type 1 and type 2. They don't have glucose tablets. It's totally weird. But you'll notice that sugar is in everything. Be careful because my fear of going low I ate too much and took care of lows with a can of soda. I gained weight that's now just coming off now that I'm back in the States.

    However, my situation is different. With my parents dead and no immediate family, I didn't have people to mail me stuff (I later got a mailing service that did and the glucose tabs were the first thing I ordered.) So for the stuff that's not there, have your people here send you care packages. The only thing you'll need though are the tablets. You can buy needles and without a prescription. Test strips are half the price that they are here in the States.

    Learn how to say that you're diabetic in Korean too. "Dangnyo-pyun imnida" (get someone to write that for you in Hangul. In fact, learn hangul. It only takes a day to learn it. It's an alphabet unlike Japanese and Chinese.)

  13. Just a quick question for you, purely out of curiosity. I'm interested in the workings of the South Korean national health system. Are your taxes exorbitant? Or about even with what you had in the US?

  14. Were blood test strips covered with your insurance there? Your blog was sooo helpful, as I am a diabetic looking to teach in South Korea. Thanks for posting!!

  15. Ooops, someone asked a question last year that I never got around to. (Too busy trying to make it in NYC to get into tax rate discussions, sorry.)

    My answer re tax rates: Google it. And on the US side, it's called a foreign tax credit. Again, Google is a great source.


    No, strips aren't covered. Neither is insulin or syringes or whatever else you use. That's all out of pocket, but strips are half the cost that they are here. You buy them at medical supply stores that are near hospitals (regular Korean pharmacies will not have diabetes supplies like test strips and syringes. When I started the pump all that equipment I ordered directly from the manufacturer. That will be a wrinkle if you're on a newer pump. See if you can buy that stuff there. You might not be able to.)

    What you get in return is ease of access to high-end endocrinologists. Like in the States go to a university-affiliated hospital, so you have one that's up on the latest research.

  16. I just have to say how HAPPY I am to find this blog, SERIOUSLY! I am also a type 1 diabetic who is considering moving to Korea for a couple years to teach. I don't want to ever let diabetes hold me back. With that said, I also want to lead a healthy life. I have searched the internet high and low and so far your blog has the BEST information on type 1 diabetes care/management. It has eased a lot of my worries. I am so thankful! THANK YOU!

    Warning: I may post back with questions! For now, I just wanted to express my gratitude! :)

    Good luck with everything in New York!

  17. Well, glad I could help. Seriously. I'm really happy that the posts I did when I lived there still help folks.

    Now I am a Pollyanna. Korea does take some adjusting to. You'll have to make sure you go to a university-affiliated hospital. Make sure they help you find a few local medical supply places. In South Korea supplies like test strips are sold in stores like that and not in all pharmacies like they do here.

    Also, all of that stuff will be out of pocket. The great part is strips are half the price there and medical care is much cheaper. I'm not sure if you're on the pump or shots, but I can give you info on both.

    BTW, thanks for your comment. You reminded me that I needed to switch up my profile. I just moved back from NYC to the SF Bay area last month. :)

  18. Do you have any information on the heath statement for your visa and then your actual health check at the hospital?

    I was told not to mention my type 1 status on the visa health statement, but then it's like, up to chance during the actual health check once I'm in the country. A girl was recently reject at the Education Office for her diabetes status and was deported...

    I lived in Korea for already a year (I was actually diagnosed there). I worry about the exam, because even though I passed it last year, I wasn't a diabetic. I can't afford to get deported obviously... :\

    Any ideas or thoughts? I'm hoping that if I get my Korean doctor to vouch for me somehow, or if I do the exam through him, I could pass somehow. IDK.

  19. I can't offer you advice on that because there wasn't such a thing when I moved there back in August of 2000. I left in March of 2009.

    It seems awful that they'd actually deport someone for being diabetic though. Crazy things can happen there, but that's one where if it had happened to me I would let the press know.

    If you were diagnosed in Korea, then, of course, go to that doctor. That would be the most logical thing to do. Good luck.

  20. Hi. I am South Korea now and I am looking for test strips and things like that. I cannot seem to find any. I am in Ulsan in the southern half of the country.

    Any suggestions?

  21. Diabetics are in Korea, so just go to a medical office and ask where the nearest medical supply store is located.

    I learned that right away and got my strips from those stores. Sometimes they're right outside the gates of a major hospital, but usually, they're nearby but around the block or down the road a bit.

    Ask an English-speaking nurse and you should be fine. Also learn how to say in Korean, "I'm diabetic" and that will help them a lot in helping you get what you need.

    Good luck.

  22. Its unbelievable that in health-care matter, south Korea is rock, ok well, we love to join this blog as regular reader thanks

  23. Well, since it's been years since I've written regularly on this blog, I'd suggest you look through the archives, but find some blogs where people are actively writing. :)

    What that means is healthcare in South Korea is affordable, high-quality, and accessible. For someone like me with a chronic healthcare condition like type 1 diabetes, it was a wonderful place to live because I wasn't terrified that the government would do something dumb and take away my healthcare. A fear I have all the time in the USA, and it seems like the current administration is going to try to gut it however they can.


Hey there! Thanks for visiting my blog. It's my first blog, and I'm glad folks are still stopping by even though I'm no longer living in South Korea. Feel free to comment. If you want a personal answer, leave your email, and I won't publish the comment. Nasty comments and spam links will not be tolerated.