Monday, May 07, 2007


In the UK any car over three years old has to pass an annual test to ensure that it's roadworthy. This is often where early problems are picked up - or made up - depending on the type of auto shop/garage you end up going to. For a long time it used to be cheap at around £20 - but like a lot of stealth taxes back home in the last few years it's managed to leap up to £50. Still, getting a clean bill of health for your car tends to be a lot cheaper than getting one for your body; an annual medical can cost anything from £500 to well over a thousand. This tends to act as a disincentive and most people try to see a the doctor when a problem develops. It's an open question as to whether the Government bean-counters (next door to the Ministry of Massive Bureaucratic Waste) think treatment rather than prevention is cheaper.

It's been my experience so far in Korea, that waiting until something is wrong to go see the doctor is seen as being rather foolish, and annual check-ups are positively encouraged by the Korean health service, particularly as you get older which is when the annual summonses for medicals start to land in your post box. Of course, you don't have to go, but why wouldn't you? And while I'm not yet at that age, there was still the sense of expectation within Korean Family that I would go along with Korean Mother and Korean Wife when they went, and volunteered themselves respectively, for a diagnostic session. It's hard to argue against something which appears inherently sensible, so we chose today since it's a public holiday in London (a late May Day), the stock market there is closed, and we took the day off.

It may be perfectly natural for a Korean to sit down in front of the doctor and report that they have no problems, but I have to say I felt rather foolish about it, expecting him to ask at any moment why on Earth I was there. But this is Korea, and they don't think like that. I searched his face for signs of disappointment at least, but saw none. This may not be China, but inscrutability is still a virtue here, usually.

So I'm presented with a menu of procedures and some recommendations and yes, I'll have the chest X-ray for starters, followed by an ECG test, blood test, urine test and abdominal ultrasound for dessert. I pass on the camera in the stomach and the prostrate cancer test, as I'm trying to cut down.
My wife mentions that I've had some shoulder trouble, but I don't need to speak Korean to recognise the universally translatable reply of "yeah whatever" from the doctor - this is an internal organs hospital (all three floors of a small office building's worth of it) and they don't do all that voodoo orthopaedic nonsense here.

So the total cost of my medical came to 38,000 won - about £21. I pay around £7.40 per month in Government-run health insurance. In the UK we pay 11% of our salary in National Insurance covering health, unemployment and pensions, but given that this figure runs to over two-hundred pounds a month on an average salary my guess is that the British health service is taking a lot more than several pounds. Oh, and comprehensive preventative medicals are very much not part of the service (go to a private hospital for that).

It's my second ECG of the year and around my eighth X-ray since arriving, so it's beginning to feel a bit like overkill - no pun intended. I'll have to watch the X-rays in future because I think I'm beginning to develop a half-life. I had to humour them, although the joke ended up being on me when they found a minor heart problem that hadn't shown up the previous time. The attempt to instil some hypochondria in me failed and it was my turn to shrug my shoulders and do the "yeah whatever" thing because I've suspected it for years and it's not a big deal. But you have to give them full marks for spotting something the British NHS probably passed over at every available opportunity - and this is what the whole prevention mentality is all about of course. I should get more exercise and try and avoid too much stress. I'm a stock market trader working a sixty hour week in a foreign country where I don't speak the language - less stress is not going to happen.

Incidentally, Wikipedia currently describes the NHS as being the fourth biggest employer in the world after the Chinese Army, Indian Railways and Wal-mart, and oddly enough, if those three organisations ever merged I think the result would be something very much resembling the British National Health Service. I suspect from the complete lack of any apparent bureaucracy in Korean hospitals they are unlikely to figure highly in world employment leagues - most people seem to be doctors and nurses rather than administrators and accountants.

Our little Korean medical centre did give me a taste of home though - the whole process took over four hours and I split vast quantities of time between reading an Alan Booth travelogue and staring at the wall pondering life, though at least the paint job was better than in the hospitals of the NHS - it looked like it had been done during my lifetime.


Mosher said...

Ho on earth can you have a proper health system where the medical staff outweigh the paperwork shifters? Korea truly is a backwards country!


Mike said...

I know, there are an alarming number of people actually doing productive work here rather than playing paperwork tennis in the twilight zone of middle-management as they do in the West. I think that's one of Korea's economic secrets.

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