Going to the doctor in Korea
A trip to the doctor can be daunting, especially when you're away from home. Miscommunication and procedural differences contribute to the vulnerability that accompanies illness.
"I've watched many new co-workers go to the doctor and get freaked out by the pill cocktails and little baggies, as well as getting a shot regardless of your symptoms" said Bruce Alexander, a manager at a leading “hagwon” chain.
While major Korean medical institutions are looking to cash in on the growing medical tourism industry, big changes can also be found in the small, privately owned clinics of Korea. According to clinic owners, many of those changes are fueled by customer demand and growing multiculturalism.
Family physician Park Soon-oak opened her clinic in 2002, in Haebangchon (HBC) in the Yongsan district in Seoul, an area known for its large expatriate population. She named it "Woori-dul Clinic", meaning "Our clinic", but it has since been nicknamed the "The HBC Clinic" among expats.
Park sees an average of 70 patients per day, 10 percent of whom are foreigners. The clinic provides literature in Korean and English.
“When I first moved here, I didn't know the area had such a heavy foreign population. It pushed me to study language, and it's made my job challenging and interesting. It also inspired a lot of changes," said Park.
Park's services have evolved with her clientele. A quick glance around her waiting room shows advertisements for skin products, weight loss programs and nutrition supplements.
"I'm a primary care provider,” she said. "However, people's expectations of doctors are growing. People used to only visit when they were sick. Now, we must address lifestyle. I expect more changes."
When considering the differences between Korean and western clinics, Park sees distinctions.
"In countries like Canada, people may have one family doctor for the majority of their lives who has access to comprehensive medical records,” she said. "This isn't happening here yet, but it would make a doctor’s job much easier."
What to expect
"I go to The HBC Clinic and I always have. It's way cheaper than in the West," says Tracey Lawrence, a six-year resident of Seoul.
Consultations cost about 30,000 won or 14,000 won with Korean National Health Insurance.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a doctor's visit in America varies according to location, and costs an average of 70,000 won.
Apart from price commonly noted distinctions lie in the manner in which medicine is dealt with.
"I see the use of multiple medications as a cultural habit,” Park said. "A lot of trust is put into doctors, and we do our best to make sure patients know what to expect from their medicine."
In North America, a great deal of effort goes into educating patients about medication, side effects and options, and negligence can lead to lawsuits or criminal charges.
In terms of educational responsibility in Korea, Park says the situation is "unclear."
Another cultural habit is the infamous “shot in the hindquarters,” or intramuscular injection, which Park sees as a dying tradition.
"We avoid injecting young patients, though elderly patients expect it. The injection is usually a painkiller or anti-inflammatory, but doctors are moving away from it," said Park.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the East and West is the prevalence of psychotropic medications, such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicines.
"Ten years ago, these medications seemed strange to me, and some doctors refused to prescribe them,” Park said. "However, my views have changed. The number of Koreans using these medications is increasing."
Regardless of culture, Park believes the keys to a good medical experience are good communication and trust.
"Everyone feels vulnerable when they are sick. We do our best to create a trusting environment."
The writer is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers and can be reached at email@example.com.