Healthcare in South Korea
Healthcare in South Korea is modern and efficient. Both Western and Eastern medical practitioners and medicines are available, and both 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 is 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, however, most of these are more expensive and not as widely recognised as the national scheme.
It is important for expats to note that they are not 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.
Public healthcare in South Korea
South Korea's National Health Insurance programme is a compulsory social insurance system which covers the whole population. By law, any company that employs more than five foreign workers must enrol their foreign workers in a health insurance programme. The company is expected to pay half of their employees' health insurance premiums each month, while employees cover the other half.
It is important to note that this does not apply to expats employed as independent contractors. The amount someone pays towards the NHI is determined in the same way taxes are – on a sliding scale according to how high their salary is.
Doctors and specialists will claim most of the costs of a consultation from the NHI, while expats will have to pay 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 are not as thorough as they could be. Doctors may also overprescribe medication in an attempt to get more benefits from pharmaceutical companies.
Employers are responsible for enrolling their employees in the NHI system. Self-employed expats will need to apply at their nearest hospital with their passport and their residence card.
Private healthcare in South Korea
National Health Insurance covers most day-to-day and emergency medical procedures, prescription medication and specialist visits. However, some procedures and medications, particularly those associated with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, are not covered and can become costly. Private insurance companies exist for this reason and many Koreans and expats who can afford it sign up for a chronic illness plan to guard against costs the NHI may not cover.
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, although they may not always have the best sanitation practices. Expats can also attend 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.
Medicine and pharmacies in South Korea
Pharmacies are plentiful and both Western and Eastern medicines are available in abundance. Pharmacies are usually located near hospitals, as hospitals in Korea are not permitted to dispense prescription medication. Although 24-hour pharmacies are rare, there are many pharmacies that close at late hours.
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.
There is a small risk of malaria in some rural areas and expats are advised to take medication and wear appropriate clothing in affected areas. Malaria prophylaxes are widely available, including at the medical centre at Seoul's Incheon Airport.
Emergency services in South Korea
Expats can phone the Immigration Contact Center for emergency or routine medical advice, or for translation help if they are 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