Sunday, April 17, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 17: Health

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Sometimes it feels like I’ve visited a lot of hospitals and dentists while I’ve been here, so today I’m talking about some of my health-related experiences in Korea.

The first hospital by comparison

My first experience was only two weeks after coming here, but it was for my brother-in-law, not me. He wasn’t feeling well, so we decided to take him to a hospital. That was a big surprise in itself, because in England you have to phone for an appointment with your doctor, and then you maybe get one with seven days. So often you think there’s no point, because by the time you see the doctor, you’ll probably be feeling better, whereas in Korea you just go straight there. I know Koreans must take this for granted, but for me it was amazing.

What’s more, British doctors have offices, but there’s generally nothing to treat you there – it isn’t a hospital. You might get a prescription for drugs, but if you need further diagnosis like an x-ray, or treatment, you’ll have to join a waiting list for an appointment at the main city hospital – which is like the large university or government hospitals in Korea. In other words, diagnosis and treatment can be a very slow process in England.

I wonder how quickly they diagnose Meniere’s Disease in Korea?

For example, I became really ill with attacks of dizziness and sickness in the UK six years ago, but I still waited a week for a doctor’s appointment. Then I got some pills for an ear infection I didn’t have, went back a month later and got some more pills, waited a couple of weeks for an x-ray, waited another couple of weeks for the results, and another week for the doctor’s appointment where he told me they couldn’t find anything and I should just wait and see if it got better or worse.

Two months later they agreed to send me for hearing and balance tests, two months after that I actually had those tests, and then I waited another two months for the results. Then I got tired of all this waiting around and paid around 500,000 won [~£282/$460] to see a specialist consultant privately for thirty minutes. He recommended an MRI to look for brain tumours – but because the cost of 1.3 million won [~£733/$1,200] I waited two months to have it done through the national health system [NHS] which was free, and then I waited a long six weeks for the results of that. The results were negative and so I had to wait another five weeks to see the consultant again, and that’s when I was finally diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease.

So it was thirteen months from my first Meniere’s attack in December 2004 to my diagnosis in January 2006. If it had been a brain tumour, the delay might have been the difference between life and death, which really makes you think how good the system is in Korea.

And here’s my first proof

When I developed neck pain a few months after arriving here, I went to a specialised local orthopaedic hospital. Five minutes after arriving I’d already had two x-rays, and five minutes later I was seeing an orthopaedic professor. So after ten minutes I was seeing the kind of professional it had taken me nine months to see in England. Fifteen minutes later I was starting treatment for the problem, and it was really cheap because the whole visit cost 32,000 won – even though I didn’t have national insurance at the time. It would have only been 13,200 if I had.

Treatment differences and a lingering question

The treatment was not really similar to the kind you get in England. I had massage pads put on me which left these large ugly bloody circles on my neck – I’ve never seen anything like that in England – and I even had acupuncture later. All the nurses gather to watch when that happened because they’d never seen a Westerner having acupuncture before. But actually, this was the easy option, because the doctor recommended physiotherapy and acupuncture as the second choice – the first was multiple neck injections and surgery. I wasn’t keen on that, and the doctor laughed because apparently Westerners never are.

I got better despite not opting for the surgery, so how necessary was it? I started off thinking that the Korean health system was great, but I began to see a downside, which is over-treatment – doing tests and getting treatment that maybe isn’t necessary.

In fact, I had more experience with this because I had some chest pains last year, and the professor I ended up seeing recommended a heart CT scan, but later I read that there’s a 1 in 600 chance of that procedure actually causing cancer, and personally I don’t like those odds. I know it’s a risk, but all the other tests seemed to say I was OK, so I decided the CT scan was a step too far. And I got better, so it probably was.

Actually, the interesting thing about that experience was that the professor spoke perfect English, so it was the first time I had a proper conversation about a problem rather than having everything translated through my wife. Language is a big problem when seeing doctors and dentists – it’s quite frustrating.

Dentists and the veneer begins to wear off

The dental system is bad in England as well; I used to have to book appointments up to two months in advance with my dentist. But you tend to have check-ups there every six months, whereas I gather that in Korea people often only go when they have a problem.

I found it’s more high-tech here, so there are screens above the chair where you can see your x-rays, or a video of the work being done, but I was a bit shocked at the lack of glove usage. When I went to the dentist here, I hadn’t expected to end up with a 20-something woman’s unprotected fingers deep in my mouth. And when they found a problem with an existing filling, they said it couldn’t be fixed and I had to have the tooth out. A second dentist said the same. But when I went back to England they fixed it and it’s still fine two years later, so even though treatment is much cheaper here, especially now I have private insurance, maybe you don’t always get better results.

Private insurance or signing your soul away

Even though medical costs seem relatively low here, I still bought private insurance, but it was very complicated to understand. The cost is about the same as in the UK, but I’m only paying for twenty years and then it’s supposed to all be free after that [i.e. pyramid-scheme alert], which sounds like a bad deal for the company. And when I agreed I had to sign around ten documents which were all in Korean and I didn’t understand what I was signing.

But on balance

Generally I’m a big fan of the Korean health system though. Treatment is fast and it’s relatively cheap [although not for everyone]. There are downsides – such as the potential for over-treatment, and the way doctors sometimes go on strike here, which never happens in England, or the way hospitals are closed for long periods over holidays such as Seollal. But I think if British people could experience this system we’d want to switch over to it in the UK immediately. I think it’s one of the best things about Korea, and as someone who’s had a couple of medical problems in the last few years – and now that I also have my son’s health to worry about as well – it’s one of the reasons I really like living here.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-02-16 @ ~19:30

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