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Going to the Doctor in Korea

January 25, 2012

Another adventure in Korea, but not a fun one:

I got back from a really great snowboarding trip at Pheonix Park in Gangwan-do last night, and I was supposed to go back to work today.  I had some extra time off for Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year holiday.

However, right after I woke up this morning, I threw up.  Ten minutes later, I threw up again.  Ten minutes later, yet again.  Then, I started shaking and sweating.  This sort of thing has happened to me before in Korea, but it wasn’t nearly this bad last time.  I don’t think it was something I ate, because I talked to the people I was with yesterday, and they were all ok.

My hagwon has a “you better come in to work unless you are practically dying” sick leave policy, but I called in sick anyway.  I specifically remember thinking “The worst they can do is fire me, and that would be better than trying to teach six classes of kids today.”

At first I was reluctant to go see a doctor, but after the OTC stomach medicine I had failed to do anything, I realized I had to go.  Also, any time I drank any water, I immediately threw it back up again, and I was starting to feel really dehydrated.

I knew how to say most of my symptoms in Korean, but I was nervous that I would mess up the pronunciation, so I wrote them out on a piece of paper:

나는 앤드류 이에요. 나는 정말 아퍼요.  아침에 5 번 토했어요.  두통더 있어요.  나는 의료보함 있어요.  감사함니다.

It’s a little bit rough, but it got the point across.  Luckily, there’s a hospital only a few blocks away from my apartment.  I walked over, but at this point I was feeling really weak.

I handed the note to the receptionist, and she smiled and led me to a nurse, who said a few things to me in Korean that I didn’t understand.  But then, she led me to a doctor who was fluent in English.  I was talking to the doctor within five minutes of arriving at the hospital.

After talking to the doctor for a while, he said he didn’t just want to give me medicine and send me back home, because I was extremely dehydrated, and because I was obviously dizzy.  He said that he wanted to hook me up to an IV for a few hours so that I could get rehydrated.  Maybe there was also some kind of medication in the IV drip, but I’m not actually sure because he was a little bit hard to understand.

So, I walked up to the patient rooms, and took off my shoes, and got hooked up to an IV for about four hours.  I mostly just zoned out and stared out the window, but I also tried to understand the older Koreans’ conversation beside me, who had a really long discussion about pizza.

Later, the nurse came and took the IV out, and then got me to hold onto the bandage.  Then, she walked away without saying anything.  I lied there for about five more minutes, and I tried to think of how to say “Can I go now?” in Korean, but I couldn’t remember.  I remembered 지금 가야 해요? or, “should I go now?” and decided that was close enough.  But, the nurse didn’t come back for awhile, so, on impulse, I just got up and walked out of the hospital.  I wouldn’t have done this in a more normal state of mind, but I think it was ok.  No one seemed to question me, anyway.

At the hospital, I had to pay 7,500 won, or about $6.50 US dollars.  At the pharmacy, I had to pay 2,000 won, or about $1.75, for three days of medication.  My half day in the hospital and my drugs for three days cost me less than $10.

Overall, my experience with the Korean health care system was really good.  The doctor took an extra step in giving me the IV, instead of just writing me a prescription and sending me home.  It was really cheap, and everything was done competently.  Besides the misunderstanding between the nurse and I at the end, everything went smoothly.  For health insurance, I get 60,000 won taken out of my paycheck every month into the single payer system, which seems really reasonable given the quality of care and low direct cost.  If you are interested in reading about exactly how the Korean health care system works, and why it’s inexpensive, look here.

Here are some tips for any expat readers about going to the doctor in Korea:

1.  If you are sick, go to the doctor: The first time I got sick in Korea, I didn’t go to the doctor because I didn’t think I needed to.  This time, if I just tried to wait it out, I probably would have gotten more dehydrated and could have had much more serious problems.  It’s not expensive, so you don’t really have anything to lose.

2. Know at least a little Korean to describe what is wrong: The doctor you come in contact with will almost certainly be fluent in English, but most of the other hospital staff won’t be. Here are some useful phrases:


I am sick – 나는 아퍼요-na-neun a-peo-yo

I threw up earlier – 아까 토했어요-akka toe-haesseo-yo

I have health insurance – 의료보험 있어요 – euee-ryo-bo-ham i-sseo-yo

I have a fever – 나는 열이 있어요 – na-neun yeol-i i-sseo-yo

I hurt my leg/arm/head – 다리/팔/머리 아파요 – dali/pal/meori a-pa-yo


It might not be a bad idea to write down some of these phrases, and keep them in a card in your wallet in case you have some sort of urgent medical problem.  But don’t worry too much, because your actual doctor will speak to you in English.  Also remember: call 119 in an emergency, not 911.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 4:05 am

    Great advice, I really feel the translations are useful. Thank you for sharing.

  2. January 26, 2012 4:41 am

    Thanks for the linkage. If you don’t mind me being too pedantic, I made a couple of corrections on Korean spelling:

    I am sick – 나는 아퍼요

    I threw up earlier – 아까 토했어요

    I have health insurance – 의료보험 있어요

  3. Brandon permalink
    January 31, 2012 12:42 pm

    Glad you are okay! And its cool to hear how reasonable and effective (at least for you that time) their whole system is. PS – WE MISS YOU!

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