Visiting a doctor in Korea

One major advantage of living in Korea is having access to a great health system. It is cheap, accessible, and you can be in and out of the doctor’s office very quickly. There are many different types of clinics, and the process of getting a medical checkup can be quite overwhelming for newcomers, especially for those who have not yet learned the language.

Types of clinics

If you hear Koreans talking about going to the ‘hospital’, don’t think that they had surgery or were admitted to the emergency ward. The word 병원 can refer to anything from a major hospital to a small clinic or GP. The following are the most common types of clinics that you may need to visit. There are, of course, more specialized doctors dealing with neurology and other matters, and for those, you may have to visit a larger hospital.

- Inner body (stomach, lungs etc.): 내과 (internal medicine)

For indigestion, lung problems, or anything else related to internal organs. Doctors from this field are general physicians who deal with many issues. They can even prescribe an IV for minor issues. They also perform full body checks, such as those required for visa purposes.

- Ear-nose-throat: 이비인후과 (otorhinolaryngology)

For colds, sore throat, sinus problems, or anything else related to this area of the head. This clinic is particularly useful around spring when allergies spring up and the fine dust is quite worse.

- Teeth: 치과 (dentistry)

For teeth checkups, toothaches, and even cosmetic procedures. Dentists operate just like in other countries and you just have to be ready to follow their instructions. The usual ones are:

Open your mouth: 입을 크게 벌리세요.

Clench your teeth: 이를 악물어보세요.

Grind your teeth back and forth: 이를 앞뒤로 갈아보세요.

I’m anaesthetizing you now: 마취합니다.

This will sting (before an injection): 따끔따끔해요.

- Acupuncture/oriental medicine: 한의원 (Korean medicine)

If you are interested in trying different traditional Korean forms of medicine, there are many clinics called 한의원. There, you can try acupuncture (침술), cupping (부항), herbal medicine (한약), among other things. They can be helpful for relaxing muscles and relieving joint pain. Many places include short massages machines as part of the treatment.

Korean clinics and pharmacies

When you enter, first, you will have to fill out a small form with your basic details and provide your identification card. The receptionist will process your information, and when it’s your turn to see the doctor, you can enter the doctor’s office and sit next to their desk. They will ask you questions and perform some basic checks. Doctors sometimes speak English, and most doctors will be able to say at least the names of medical conditions in English. Often, Korean doctors will perform diagnoses very quickly – if you are accustomed to seeing a doctor for 10-15 minutes, you may be surprised by how quickly everything is over. The short time spent with a doctor is a good and a bad thing; it reduces the waiting time but it may leave you feeling like the doctor did not perform a very thorough diagnosis.

After seeing the doctor, they will send you back to the reception. The receptionist will tell you what to do next – if you need an injection, a scan, or if they have a prescription to give you. Korean clinics are somewhat more likely to give you injections, x-rays or even IV drips. If you do any of these, you will have to go to different rooms in the clinic.

When you are finished, you can pay a small fee and receive a prescription sheet if necessary. Clinics almost always have a pharmacy in the same building, so you can go there straight away and hand them your prescription. They will collect the required pills, and pack them into small bags. While the exact circumstances will differ, most commonly is a set of a few pills in each bag, separated for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pharmacist will also tell you how many times a day and for how many days you need to take the pills. This is also written on the front of the paper bag that they give you. For example, 1일3회 means 3 times a day, and 3 일분 means that they give you 3 days-worth of medicine.

Written by Ewan Smith

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