My Adventure with Korean Healthcare

*Disclaimer: The following is my personal experience with the system, limited to one incident in one medical office. This is not a statement on Korean healthcare in general, nor even on the healthcare in Naju. I’m merely sharing this experience to vent, and to perhaps prepare some other unfortunate soul for what they might face in their search for relief under similar circumstances.


It started on Sunday night. I didn’t think too much of the scratchiness in my throat — as someone highly susceptible to allergens like pollen and cigarette smoke, it was easy to write off this lone symptom as a reaction to that. Just in case, I tried to flush out my system with appropriate liquids. But in reality it bothered me so little that I wound up forgetting it for the most part.

Monday: a typhoon day. Though no worse, the scratchiness persisted, until I messaged my host mom to ask if there was any throat medicine in the house. There wasn’t. I braved the equivalent of the category 3 hurricane and took the bus downtown to Cafe Ville to hang out. The effects of the herbal tea I drank there disappeared all too quickly. My host mom suggested I go to the hospital. “For a little throat problem?” I thought. “What would be the point in that?”

By Tuesday my voice was half gone, though I wasn’t sure why; I could feel the change in my throat, but it was still far from painful. I chugged liquids almost non-stop and sucked on candies during class, and that got me through the day well enough. I googled “sore throat, no other symptoms” and found little of use because everything was a possibility.

I didn’t sleep well that night. On Wednesday I found myself unable to speak above a whisper. My colleagues at school made me spend the morning resting before taking me to the “hospital.”

And here’s where it gets interesting. The Korean word for hospital, “byeongwon,” is a cognate of the Japanese word, “byouin.” Considering the Japanese concept of a hospital is the same as the American one, I’d spent the last three months thinking it was overkill to go for anything less than an emergency. And yet Korean people go for everything. I rode downtown in the back of my coworker’s van, very much not looking forward to the smell of citrus floor cleaner and an hours-long wait while everyone having an actual emergency went in ahead of me. Even in the States, a ruptured cyst was only important enough to have me seen after three hours.

Leave it to Korea to linguistically baffle me. A byeongwon may be a hospital, in some cases; an actual hospital with inpatients and surgeries and an emergency ward. But in this case, it was a clinic. The walk-in kind that doesn’t do appointments and closes for two hours during lunch time.

The doctor there gave me two throat swabs and a spray of peppermint to wash out the taste of them, answered my inquiry as to whether it was an infection with a simple “yes,” and prescribed me six different pills before I’d been sitting in his chair a full minute. He then asked if I wanted an injection. I said no. The office told me to come back in three days.

At this point, I still didn’t consider myself to be in pain. I took the medicine, as directed, hoping my voice would be recovered enough to teach the next day.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a velociraptor in my throat.

Every swallow was excruciating. I couldn’t fall back asleep, so I went into the kitchen for some cold tea. It didn’t help. In the morning, I texted two of my friends at school to ask whether I should come in.

Me: If I’m taking medicine, it shouldn’t be getting worse, right?!

Friend 1: I guess it won’t get better all at once. 😦

Friend 2: Mr. Y wants you to call him even though you can’t say anything.

Me: I hope he knows morse code…

After sufficiently proving my inability to verbally communicate, Mr. Y let me out of going to school for the day. I rested, continued taking the medicine, and continued wanting to just take bleach to my esophagus and be done with it.

what the pain-infused part of my brain thinks is a good idea

Which brings us to today. After yet another night of insufferable pain, I stumbled out of my room around 6:30 to find my host mom already awake. Not even tempted to try using my vocal folds, I typed her messages on my phone to communicate my need to return to the hospital for a more effective treatment. She wasn’t hard to convince, and even suggested we go before they opened since it was such a good hospital and had many patients.

This time I felt more confident in getting the appropriate treatment, since my host mom saw the doctor with me and could explain to him in Korean what I now couldn’t even do in English. Again he swabbed my throat twice and gave me the peppermint spray. My host mom mentioned that they wanted to give me a shot, and again I turned it down. At the front desk they told us to come back Sunday and handed her another prescription, which we filled downstairs.

It was the same exact set of medicines.


So here’s what I see wrong here:

1. I’m not entirely sure how far ahead (or behind) Korean medicine is compared to that in the States, but in doing my own research online I know that the initial test for Strep Throat takes at least ten minutes. And true, I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell there is no way that doctor could have ruled it out just by looking/swabbing in the literally one minute I had audience with him each time. So my problem could be Strep or Mono or any number of things, and yet the doctor just prescribed what, to me, is an arbitrary set of pills and sent me off.

2. No one actually explained to me what the pills were or what they were supposed to do.

a. I had assumed, there being six different types, that at least one of them had to be for pain — apparently not. Okay, so my throat still hurts, but at least I’m fighting the infection, right? So am I allowed to mix these pills with acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce the swelling and hence the pain? Because believe me, I’m not about to sit and let an esopha-raptor swing around on my tonsils.

b. What if my condition was aggravated due to an allergic reaction from one of these mystery medicines?

c. Even if that’s not the case, they’re clearly not doing whatever it is they’re supposed to do, so why make me buy more?

3. This is supposed to be a “good” hospital?!


Again, this is just my personal experience, and there could be a number of factors that have brought me to this point. Something could have gotten lost in translation, or maybe that injection I keep turning down is the only real effective thing they have. Maybe Strep and Mono are extremely uncommon here. I don’t know. But for now, two clinic visits later and I’m feeling even worse than before, with no apparent solution other than scalding hot tea.

So this is my advice if you find yourself sick in Korea: Do your research. Find out what it could be, make a list, and translate it. Encourage your doctor to try explaining your sickness to you, as well as the cocktail of medicines he will infallibly prescribe you for it. And don’t leave until you’re satisfied.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. deannesher
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 05:53:32

    the medicines caused the pain—-you went to a Scientology clinic–or is that Christian Scientist?–Korean’s don’t have nerve endings in their throats –is that why we never see a Korean drug addict here!–MRSA hasn’t reached Korea yet. They so seldom use penicillin they only need one 10 mg pill to wipe out gangrene–and now for audience says—


  2. Barb the French Bean
    Sep 22, 2012 @ 09:49:57

    In all seriousness, I would request that you gargle a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water (equal parts), but not knowing what the heck you took, I wouldn’t risk doing so.

    I am not kidding about the hydrogen peroxide gargling. 😛

    I send you a virtual big hug, pillows and warm lemon tea! Feel better soon!


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