As one of Asia’s leading countries, South Korea has a high quality healthcare sector. There are ample public and private health facilities located throughout the country, and a wide range of services and treatments are available. There is a national medical insurance scheme through which all Korean nationals receive healthcare. Expatriates are also required to join the scheme, regardless of whether or not their company is Korean owned. Foreign visitors and expatriates are also entitled to hold private medical insurance plans, and this is crucial for tourists as they are exempt from the national medical insurance scheme and are required to personally meet any medical costs.
South Korean Healthcare System Overview
South Korea has one of the most modern and developed healthcare sectors in Asia. It has numerous medical facilities, both public and private, that provide first class levels of care and treatment. Medical staff are all highly trained and experienced, and the treatment and services available throughout the country are close to international standard. Foreign visitors and expatriates have unrestricted access to health facilities when treatment is necessary, and expatriates are required to join the national health insurance scheme shortly after their arrival in the country.
Healthcare in South Korea is dominated by the National Health Insurance Program (NHIP). All Korean citizens are required by law to join the scheme, and it ensures heavily subsidized healthcare treatment is available for members at public health facilities. Members of the scheme contribute through a social insurance tax reflective of their annual salary. Coverage also then extends automatically to other family members and dependents.
Foreign workers and expatriates are also legally required to join the scheme. On arrival in South Korea, expats must first apply for the Alien Registration Card before being eligible to apply for their NHIP card. The payment structure is slightly different for expats, as the employer will pay 50 percent of the health insurance tax and the expat the other 50 percent. When a foreign national requires treatment at a dentist or health facility, they are still required to pay a small consultation fee. One important point to note is that it can take a number of months to receive the Alien Registration Card, and during this time an expat is not covered by the scheme. It is therefore wise to consider purchasing a South Korea health insurance plan to ensure you are fully protected from the time you arrive.
Most medical facilities, particularly those in Seoul, will have an English-speaking doctor available to assist foreign nationals. Junior medical staff and nurses may not be able to speak English. If you require medical treatment, it is advisable to bring a Korean friend or colleague with you to ensure you receive the appropriate medical treatment. In addition, there are a growing number of international clinics that now cater to foreign expatriates. Staff at these clinics can all speak English although it should be noted that medical costs are much higher. Overall, hospitals and clinics are generally equipped with all the latest technology and hardware, and a majority of medical services are possible. One issue that might arise, however, is that of sanitation. Some hospitals do not practice good sanitation and may be quite dirty.
Similar to the international clinics but on a larger scale are South Korea’s network of private medical facilities. Private hospitals and clinics operate throughout the whole country, however, the majority of facilities are located in Seoul and Busan. There is little difference between the medical services and standard of treatment on offer from private and public facilities, although there are some notable exceptions. The first main difference is cost. Treatment at private facilities is not covered by the NHIP scheme and costs are therefore quite high. The other difference is clientele. Given the additional expenses, private facilities are most popular with expatriates and wealthy Korean nationals. This ensures that waiting times for specialist procedures are short. Korean citizens will typically only use private clinics or hospitals for treatment that is not covered by the NHIP scheme, such as treatment for chronic illnesses or diseases.
Despite the many positives of the South Korean healthcare system, there are a number of issues going forward that will impact on the country’s ability to continue to provide first class healthcare. South Korea has an aging population, with less people working to contribute to pensions and other public expenses such as healthcare. A higher percentage of older people also directly impacts on the provision of healthcare, placing strain and more burden on facilities and staff. Changes in wealth, living standards and social habits are all contributing to increases in chronic disease in South Korea. An estimated 25 percent of the population now suffer from a chronic illness, and the main contributor to this problem is the high percentage of the population that smoke. Tobacco related illnesses are by far the main cause of premature deaths in Korea.
Expatriates and visitors should be aware of the health risks associated with living in or visiting South Korea. As the country becomes more urbanized, pollution and sanitation have become an important issue. In addition to the air pollution that naturally develops across the country, South Korea is also affected by a seasonal “Yellow Dust” which consists of dust and sand particles blown over the peninsula from China. First time visitors to South Korea and East Asia in general may need to update or receive vaccinations prior to travel. While there are no major contagious illnesses or diseases to be aware of, incidents of Hepatitis A and Japanese encephalitis do occur from time to time. Hepatitis A is spread through food and water, while Japanese encephalitis is spread through the bite of a mosquito. Precautions against both of these diseases should be taken, particularly during the warm and humid summer months.