Sick

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As I nursed the head cold to end all head colds this weekend, I felt like it was high time, out of practicality more than a desire for pity, to address what it’s like being sick in a foreign country.  While South Korea has incredibly advanced medical facilities and is building a lucrative medical tourism industry, there are things (other than your Mama) that you’ll want and want to know in order to deal with your first illness as an ex-pat.

First of all, Koreans don’t really take sick days, and to get one here, you’ll probably have to have a doctor’s note.  There’s no calling in sick just to lie on the couch.  If you’re ill enough to miss work here, you’re making a trip to the hospital or sacrificing one of your precious vacation days in order to lay out.

 

As I nursed the head cold to end all head colds this weekend, I felt like it was high time, out of practicality more than a desire for pity, to address what it’s like being sick in a foreign country.  While South Korea has incredibly advanced medical facilities and is building a lucrative medical tourism industry, there are things (other than your Mama) that you’ll want and want to know in order to deal with your first illness as an ex-pat.

First of all, Koreans don’t really take sick days, and to get one here, you’ll probably have to have a doctor’s note.  There’s no calling in sick just to lie on the couch.  If you’re ill enough to miss work here, you’re making a trip to the hospital or sacrificing one of your precious vacation days in order to lay out.

That said, when you read hospital here, think doctor’s office.  And look really hard for one that caters to foreigners.  I don’t know how readily available foreigner friendly hospitals are in smaller cities, but Busan’s Haeundae Paik Hospital has an entire floor dedicated to international medicine.  This means a full time English speaking nurse who schedules appointments for foreigners, who will seek out English speaking doctors, and who will help you navigate the enormous hospital building, escorting you to offices, providing translation when needed, and helping you file your insurance, etc.  Not having to negotiate the language barrier alone is an incredibly luxury when you don’t feel well, so definitely get the names of English speaking or foreigner friendly hospitals, dentists, eye doctors, etc. from other ex-pats in your area.

Next, Koreans are big believers in alternative medicine.  This means you can see a chiropractor or acupuncturist for a pittance, and it’s covered by your national insurance.  There are also foreigner-friendly alternative medicine practitioners here in Busan, and I’m sure the same is true for other large cities in Korea.  Koreans also are really big on food as medicine, and there are a wide array of drinks, teas, fruits, roots, berries, and other things to eat in order to cure what ails you.  

You should also know that drugs are highly regulated here. Illegal drug use is almost non-existent, and the penalties for it are pretty severe.  Medicines can ONLY be purchased at pharmacies, and these places are usually only open during business hours.  Gone are the days of running to the grocery store for cold medicine at midnight, which means you’ll want to be prepared and keep everyday medicines on hand for when you might need them.  

Furthermore, many American over the counter drugs, such as Claritin and DayQuil, require prescriptions here.  And things like ibuprofen are sold in tiny packets and run about $2.50 American for ten pills.  If you have to have any of these medicines to function, you may want to pack a starter supply until you can navigate the whole pharmacy/doctor thing here.

Speaking of pharmacies, the pharmacists here don’t always speak fluent English, although we have frequently been surprised with fluent speakers in unlikely places.  Take in a packet of what you need to buy, so that they (and you) can match the names of the active ingredients in the medicines.  Name brands like Advil are meaningless here, so you’ll want to know the actual names of the drugs you need.   

And, finally, and I say this as delicately as possible, be prepared for it to be tricky to get pain medicine.  When we went to the doctor this fall for Ric’s head cold, the ear nose and throat doctor happily scribbled out scrips for antibiotics, expectorants, and all sorts of other cure alls.  However, when we went back a month later because he had been having pretty excruciating shoulder pain for two weeks, they were not so forthcoming with the pills.  In fact, after subjecting Ric to an x-ray and a CT scan (which cost around $100 American with our awesome Korean insurance), the doctor told Ric that if he were Korean, they would give him a shot for the pain.  To which, Ric replied, “Ahn-yong-ah-say-oh” in his best Korean accent, and managed to negotiate the pain shot.  We were a little shocked; I mean, in America I had been given Vicodin prescriptions for a toothache, and Ric was in so much pain he couldn’t sleep at night.  We think this may stem from Korean doctors’ perceptions of Americans as a little too free and easy with the drugs, and I don’t know that I entirely disagree with that statement.  Or maybe we just got a doctor who has been watching a few too many House reruns.  

So, they key points of this missive are:  1)  Excellent health care is available in Korea in a variety of forms, 2) Actively seek out medical practitioners who are comfortable with and/or cater to foreigners, and 3)  Be prepared for different laws and customs governing the sale of medicines here.  This may mean you need to bring your own DayQuil.  

Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: Busan, Korea, medicines, Paik Hospital, sick



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