Healthcare in South Korea is modern and efficient. Both Western and Eastern medical practitioners and medicines are available and covered under the government’s National Health Insurance (NHI).
Apart from the NHI, there are several private health insurance options, but most are pricey and not as widely recognised as the national scheme.
Expats need to note that they aren't covered by either the National Health Insurance plan or private health insurance until they have received their Residence Card from their local Korea Immigration Service office. This can take up to six weeks or more, so expats are advised to apply as soon as they arrive in the country.
Health insurance in South Korea
South Korea's National Health Insurance programme is a compulsory social insurance system that 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 incur a small cost as well.
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.
Public healthcare in South Korea
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.
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, 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.
Private healthcare in South Korea
While the 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 daily.
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 city pollution. In spring, the 'Yellow Dust' – a combination of industrial pollutants and dust from mainland China – might necessitate wearing a mask outdoors, particularly for people with respiratory issues such as asthma.
Vaccinations for South Korea
Expats moving to South Korea will need to ensure that they have their routine vaccinations, including the flu, chickenpox and tetanus immunisations, up to date. Babies between six and 11 months old should get a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine before travelling to South Korea. Some other vaccines to consider include:
- Typhoid: this vaccine is recommended for new arrivals moving to smaller cities or rural areas in South Korea.
- Japanese Encephalitis: Although largely eradicated in South Korea, Japanese Encephalitis is still a risk in the country, particularly in areas where cases have been found in the past.
- Hepatitis A and B: Expats and babies between six and 11 months old who are unvaccinated against Hepatitis A and B should ensure they receive the vaccines before moving to South Korea.
Expats should contact their healthcare provider for individual care and vaccine recommendations before making the big move.
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