From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."

Doctors and Heath Care in SK


Darn it! They’re doing it again! T.T

Since Friday of last week, I have been battling with my third molar, also known as the dreadful wisdom tooth. Pain relievers couldn’t do much to alleviate the excruciating pain. I had to bear the torture until Monday, because no dental clinic was open on the weekend. It was Children’s Day on Saturday, a national holiday in Korea, and all the clinics in our area, which are usually open until 2 on Saturdays, were closed!

Two years ago I had the same problem with the other wisdom tooth. The pain was also unbearable. How could one tiny protruding tooth cause so much pain and trouble?

In South Korea, they call a wisdom tooth 사랑니 or “love tooth”. I have been asking my husband and complaining why Koreans call it “love tooth”, as there is nothing to LOVE about a tooth that you don’t really need and brings you only pain and medical danger, but he’s got no idea how the name was derived.

When my 사랑니 in the bottom RIGHT of my jaw was coming out and started aching here in Korea, I went to see a dentist. I have dentophobia, actually. In the Philippines, I rarely went to see my dentist. I would only visit his clinic for teeth cleaning and once when my wisdom tooth started to erupt.

My first experience in a dental clinic in Korea wasn’t pleasant. The dentist and the nurses could barely speak English, so I had to rely on my 작은 아주버님’s (chagun ajubonim or brother-in-law) translation. The dentist explained (in Korean) how difficult and dangerous it would be to extract my impacted wisdom tooth, so if I really wanted it removed, I should go to an oral surgeon. That meant waiting for another day or two or maybe more, because I had to find an oral surgeon near our area and make a reservation.

Once you make a reservation for a check-up, expect that you will be asked about your health insurance, (alien) registration number and your condition or health problem. You can make a reservation by calling or visiting the hospital or clinic. You can also make an appointment on-line. Not all hospital staff can speak English well, but in Seoul, there are a number of international hospitals and clinics you can go to, and when you make a reservation through their international phone service, there is someone who can speak to you in English. Some hospitals have an international website, too. Nowadays, most big hospitals in Korea have international health care because of the growing number of foreigners working and living in the country.
If you want to seek medical attention in a well-known hospital, you will be required to make a reservation. In my country, you can just go to a hospital or clinic anytime you don’t feel well, without having to make a reservation, but of course you have to line up or wait (sometimes for hours) before you finally see the doctor. Koreans don’t like to wait too long, that’s why they make an appointment before going to the hospital… unless it’s an emergency, of course. However, in most hospitals in big cities like Seoul, you will be waiting even after you have made an appointment, because there are usually many patients.
While waiting for your turn, the nurse may keep you busy by asking you to fill out a lengthy medical checklist before you meet the doctor. Consider yourself lucky if the checklist given to you is translated in English. When I went to Seoul National University Hospital for the first time, the two-paged checklist given to me was in 한글 (Korean alphabet). I think they don’t have one for foreigners, although SNUH is one of the big hospitals in Seoul with international health service. My poor husband had to translate everything for me in English.
Once you meet the doctor, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t ask you too many questions about your medical condition. He has already scanned the medical checklist you’ve filled out before, and doctors here don’t usually do the asking. That’s the nurse’s job.
When I visited the dentist, it was the nurse who asked me (before the x-ray) if I was pregnant, if I had taken any medicine before going to the clinic, if my wisdom tooth or gum was bleeding or swelling, etc. The dentist didn’t ask me even a single question. He looked at my dental x-ray from the computer very briefly, then at my aching wisdom tooth. He wrote something on a piece of paper which he handed to the nurse, and talked to my brother-in-law about my wisdom tooth for like 3 minutes, and then he left. I wasn’t even asked if I had any questions. The nurse was the one who wrapped up everything. After my brother-in-law translated in English what the dentist said, I was a bit upset that the dentist only prescribed some pain relievers and antibiotics and advised me to see an oral surgeon who can extract my wisdom tooth. He didn’t offer me another solution. He didn’t ask me what I wanted.
Most doctors in Korea won’t discuss options with patients. They don’t spend a lot of time talking to patients and don’t feel the need to establish rapport with them. They are very straightforward and always give the worst-case scenario. Also, Korean doctors don’t like being bombarded with questions. They tend to be in a hurry to attend to other patients, a common observation and complaint of foreigners.
Before I left the dental clinic, I asked the nurse to ASK THE DENTIST if there was another way he could help me or at least refer me to an orthodontist or oral surgeon. She did ask him, and I was told to go back to the clinic the next day. The dentist didn’t say why.
The next day, I was expecting to be told first what the dentist was going to do with my wisdom tooth, but when I sat on the dental chair, he asked me to open my mouth, gave my gum a vaccine and left me (again). The nurse told me to wait for a few minutes. I was waiting on the dental chair, nervous and confused. When the dentist came back, I asked him what he was going to do, but he just spoke  one sentence in Korean that I couldn’t understand, asked me to open my mouth again and started drilling something in there. It didn’t really hurt because my jaw was numb, so I figured that the shot he gave me was anesthesia. I thought he was already extracting my wisdom tooth. I was scared, because he said he couldn’t do it in his clinic, and yet he was doing it. When it was done, I was looking for the tooth that he removed, but there was none. I was thinking: “What the heck did he do?”
The dentist was gone even before I could ask him. He attended to another patient who was sitting on the other side of the room. It was the nurse who explained everything to my brother-in-law who was waiting in the lobby. (Just in case you’re wondering why it was my brother-in-law who was helping me go to the dentist instead of my husband… hubby was working during the day and my 작은 아주버님 used to work the night shift. Lucky me, I’ve got a brother-in-law-best-friend who was willing to help me. ^^)
According to the nurse, the doctor cut the gum tissue to allow the wisdom tooth to come out more easily. I was told the do’s and dont’s after surgery, and that it’s going to hurt a little when the anesthesia wears off, but I should keep taking the meds they gave me the day before.
To cut the long story short, my gum hurt like **** after a few hours, along with my stubborn wisdom tooth. The pain lasted for two more days, but thank God, whatever the dentist did helped a lot. My wisdom tooth in the bottom RIGHT of my jaw doesn’t hurt anymore, and I pray that it NEVER WILL.
Yesterday, however, I had one wisdom tooth extracted, the one in the bottom LEFT of my jaw. I had the surgery done in another clinic in Janghyeon called YONSEI DENTAL CLINIC. The dentist who performed the surgery can speak English and is more accommodating than the dentist I have consulted before. He explained to me the procedure very briefly before the surgery, and kept asking if it hurt as he was pulling out the tooth. After maybe 15 minutes, my 사랑니 was out. The dentist even took time to see my husband who was waiting outside and discussed to him what post-operative care should be done. The nurse gave us a list of do’s and dont’s after wisdom tooth extraction.

As usual, the list is in Korean, so my husband had to translate (again) the sentences I couldn’t understand. ^^

I was asked to go back to the clinic the next day. It was a different dentist who filled my gum with medicated dressing. He didn’t talk to me, he simply did his job, but I didn’t mind. I guess I somehow got used to this “doctor-aloofness thing” in Korea.
I miss the sincere amiability and welcoming smiles of the doctors in my country, but I’m not in the Philippines anymore. Korea is now my home, so I have to accept cultural differences between doctors in my native land and doctors in South Korea.
Anyway, based on my many experiences with doctors here in SK, (You see, I get sick a lot. T.T) I can say that majority of Korean doctors are efficient and they provide a high standard service. Although not all of them speak English well, they can understand at least some degree of it… so don’t hesitate to talk to them in English, if you can’t speak to them in Korean. They will try their best to answer you in English… but if there is someone who speaks Korean who can help you, better go with him to the hospital or clinic.

You have probably seen him play the role of a doctor in some American comedy shows. He’s a comedian. He’s Korean. He’s a doctor in real life. ^^

If you have any questions, even if the doctor doesn’t look pleased with your inquiries, KEEP ASKING. It’s your right as a patient. Just be POLITE and DON’T QUESTION the treatment you receive. If you think you are not getting better or you would like to seek second opinion, look for another doctor, but there is no need to ask or tell your current doctor about it.

If you have a medical insurance in Korea, you don’t have to worry about paying too much hospital bills. The National Medical Insurance Plan is a requirement for all Korean residents, from children to adults, and the Korean government requires all foreign workers to have it, too. The insurance covers 20%-50% of the total charges for treatment at hospitals and clinics, as well as 30% of the total charges for prescription drugs purchased at the pharmacy. The wisdom tooth surgery I had cost only 20, 000 KRW (almost 750 PHP or 18 USD), cheaper than the cost of wisdom tooth surgery in the Philippines. If I didn’t have my medical insurance, I would have paid more.

This is your health insurance card in Korea. They don’t use insurance ID’s here. You won’t need to bring this with you at the hospital, as long as you have your alien registration card or ARC, or you know your alien registration number.

If you are looking for a dentist who can communicate with you in English, there are some recommended dental clinics for expats in Korea.
Most hospitals and clinics in South Korea offer high quality medical services from high-caliber medical specialists to their cutting-edge medical facilities. So far, the only concern that I have is dealing with language issues. Even in some international hospitals and clinics I’ve been to, doctors are having a hard time explaining everything to me in English. Just recently, I have learned that there is free medical interpretation in Seoul. I haven’t tried it yet, but my husband is going to be busy with work soon, so I might just give the free medical interpreting service a try. This is the information I got from

The public health center in Gangbuk-gu, Seoul provides a free interpreting service for foreign nationals at the center as well as other medical service institutions in the district. According to Invest Korea, the free interpreting service is available at the center, clinics, hospitals, oriental clinics, pharmacies, or opticians in seven different foreign languages (English, Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, German and Russian) You are connected to an interpreter when you follow the instructions after calling 02-983-7117 between 07:00 and 22:00 hours on weekdays or from 08:00 to 18:00 hours on weekends or holidays.

For simple information (translations) around Korea, there is also the BBB with services in 17 languages provided by a corps of volunteers. Tel: 1588-5644

12 thoughts on “Doctors and Heath Care in SK

  1. I was hired at a dental hospital in our area as a translator and teach English to the staff. I also assist foreigners during the treament and never leave their side until they leave the facility. I make their treament plans in English and accomodate all their questions.


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  4. Thanks for taking time to give me some tips after the extraction. I feel much better now. I’m glad I had the wisdom tooth taken out, it will bother me no more. ^^


  5. They were not remove din Korea, but the extraction procedure isn’t much uncomfortable….


  6. Don’t worry, i have got two removed, infact mine were surgical procedures too….You will just have swelling afterwards,pain will subside with pain killers.I guess they love to give pain, that’s why its called love tooth out there 🙂
    I don’t seem to understand why wisdom teeth love some people so much….Some never see them erupting ever in lives, and rest have all of the pain inflicted upon them….


  7. the second OB i had wasn’t bad enough but pretty quiet, needless to say, yes also doesn’t wanna be asked questions – seems always in a hurry or something^^..we just came here in korea for a short stay and will leave again is a relief i don’t need to deal with it over again,..anyway, i should say other than that, i believe korea is still a great place to live ^^


  8. Hi, Kim Wenn. ^^

    I’m sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience with that OB.
    I haven’t encountered a really rude doctor like that in here, but I do hope I won’t have to deal with one.

    Have you found the right OB for you?

    I kept changing OB’s because of communication problem. Thank God I’ve found a really good OB in Guri (Jangs Women’s Hospital). He’s very friendly, speaks English well, and spends a lot of time explaining everything I need to know during my check up… but I don’t go to his clinic anymore. I was referred to a specialist in Seoul National University Hospital. It’s a bigger and more technologically advanced hospital, but my new OB is having a hard time speaking to me in English. Besides, he doesn’t like answering a lot of questions. Every time I ask him something, he makes it obvious that he dislikes it.

    Anyway, he’s my current doctor. I don’t really care if he finds my asking too many questions annoying. It’s my right TO ASK. Before, he would not talk to me in English. He would just explain everything to my husband in Korean… but hubby told me I should tell him to speak to me in English, and that’s what I did. Now, he tries his best to speak English. He’s not as friendly as my favorite OB in Jangs, but at least he’s trying his best to communicate with me.


  9. im sorry i forgot to fill out the space for my name *.*


  10. i can relate to this blog, so far, i haven’t had a better experience with a doctor here in korea. they are indeed less accommodating than those in our country..few months ago i need to see an OB, i made a reservation with one nearest to my place (i’m living in seoul), i met her and to my surprise she felt so disgusted as she heard me and my husband talking in english, she was angry and ranting how on earth i haven’t learned hangug mal? that was right before my husband can say a thing and worst, she stepped out of the room and we waited for her to come back only to bear with an unpleasant consultation in a minute (we opted not to ask questions anymore and decided to go to another OB the next day)..
    that experience made me feel hesitant to seek consultation each time i feel ill.. terrible..):


  11. Thanks, Ms. Brook. ^^

    I’m glad I finally had the courage to have the terrible tooth extracted. I was scared to have the surgery, so I didn’t listen to my dentist in the Philippines, who was the first to advise me to have the wisdom tooth removed when it was just erupting… (and yes, that was a few years ago). I have “dentophobia”… Glad I was able to overcome it.


  12. What an ordeal! so painful! And so glad that pain is over for you! Good advice about talking to doctors with confidence.


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