Healthcare in South Korea is modern and efficient. Both Western and Eastern medical practitioners and medicines are available, and are covered under the government’s National Health Insurance (NHI).
Doctors, dentists, dermatologists and other specialists in South Korea are all affordable and readily available, as are general healthcare products and pharmaceutical drugs. Most hospitals and doctors have some English-speaking staff members, but it's sometimes advisable to bring along a Korean-speaking friend, particularly in smaller towns and cities.
Apart from the NHI, there are a number of private health insurance options, but most of these are more expensive and not as widely recognised as the national scheme.
It's important for expats to note that they aren't covered by either the National Health Insurance plan or private health insurance until they have received their Alien Registration Card (ARC) from their local Korea Immigration Service office. This can take some time.
Hospitals in South Korea
Medical facilities are of a high standard in South Korea, especially in Seoul. City hospitals will almost always have an English-speaking doctor on staff, although support and technical staff are less likely to speak English.
Hospitals are often well equipped and modern looking, but expats can expect long waiting times, even for emergency treatment. Expats can also visit one of several 'international clinics' affiliated with certain hospitals. These are staffed by doctors who have studied abroad and generally speak English, but they are more costly.
Before being treated in a hospital, patients need to pay a deposit against the costs that might be incurred during their stay. Some hospitals accept only certain credit cards, so it may be necessary to bring cash.
Health insurance in South Korea
South Korea's National Health Insurance programme is a compulsory social insurance system which covers the whole population. Foreigners are required to register for the national scheme if they have lived in the country for six months.
Employers are responsible for enrolling their employees in the NHI system and they pay a small percentage of an employee's salary towards the NHI, on their behalf. Self-employed expats will need to apply at their nearest hospital with their passport and their residence card and the amount paid by the expat is based on their income.
Doctors and specialists will claim most of the costs of a consultation from the NHI, and expats will have to pay only a portion of the cost. Prescription medication and traditional medicine (including acupuncture) are also covered, and will therefore also incur small costs.
The upside is that expenses for a routine visit to a doctor or dentist will be quite low for both the consultation and the medication. On the other hand, some doctors may try to see as many patients as possible, so consultations aren't as thorough as they could be. Doctors may also overprescribe medication in an attempt to get more benefits from pharmaceutical companies.
While NHI covers most day-to-day and emergency medical procedures, prescription medication and specialist visits, some procedures and medications, particularly those associated with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, aren't covered and can become costly. Private insurance companies exist for this reason. Many Koreans and expats who can afford it, sign up for a chronic illness plan to guard against costs the NHI may not cover.
Medicine and pharmacies in South Korea
Pharmacies are plentiful and both Western and Eastern medicines are available in abundance. They are usually located near hospitals, as hospitals in Korea are not permitted to dispense prescription medication. Although 24-hour pharmacies are rare, many pharmacies are open from 7am to 11pm everyday.
Expats who have enrolled in South Korea’s NHI programme will be able to get prescription medication at a heavily subsidised rate.
Health hazards in South Korea
As in many cities in industrialised Asia, South Koreans are increasingly facing health problems due to pollution in cities. In spring, the 'Yellow Dust' – a combination of industrial pollutants and dust from mainland China – might necessitate wearing a mask while outdoors, particularly for people who already have respiratory problems such as asthma.
Emergency services in South Korea
Expats can phone the Immigration Contact Center for emergency or routine medical advice. They also offer translation help if an expat is at a clinic or doctor’s office where nobody speaks English. The centre can also connect anyone directly with emergency services if appropriate. Staff members are bilingual and there will almost always be someone on staff who speaks English.
Immigration Contact Center: 1345
Ambulance and Fire Department: 119
►For information about medical care in the capital, see Healthcare in Seoul.
►Read Keeping in Touch in South Korea for information about staying connected.
"I had very good experiences with the healthcare. It was sometimes difficult to explain to the receptionists and nurses what my symptoms were because they mostly spoke Korean, but the doctors were able to speak English. If you are in need of an in-depth consultation, it might be best to search for an English hospital in your area – there are many hospitals that cater for expats." Learn about Bronwyn, a South African expat, and her experiences living in South Korea.
"Even after 12 years of living here, the idea that I can afford a specialist for even the smallest of ailments is still (quite literally) a foreign concept to me. So, yeah, in short, I love the healthcare system in South Korea. I have undergone some minor procedures, but the biggest problem I’ve had centred on communication. That said, most doctors speak a fair amount of English and if they don’t, they will find someone to help translate. There are plenty of specialists that are available in Ulsan but for major issues, there is none better than Ulsan University Hospital." Read more about Patrick and his experience of expat life in South Korea.
Are you an expat living in South Korea?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Korea. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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