Healthcare, hospitals and K-dramas

Today I was talking to my language partner about difficulties that we have faced when living alone abroad which brought about a discussion of differences in healthcare systems. What to do when you fall sick in a foreign country? Who do you call? Where do you go?

In Korean dramas and movies you will often see that if a character is not feeling well, he or she will be told by a family member or friend “go to the hospital and get some medicine/get a shot”.
This has really puzzled me because where I come from, if you randomly go to the hospital without something more to say than “I don’t feel well” then unless you are very visibly unwell they are going to think you’re a hypochondriac diverting their time from those who genuinely need help – right now. A general practitioner will help you out with most things and find out if you need to see a specialist. And some specialists will only treat you if you have a referral from a GP – or pay up-front.

In Korea, a “hospital” isn’t just a hospital in the sense of a big building full of people suffering from various degrees of critical conditions.

This is where it gets intersting for a non-Korean like me: in Korea there are no general practitioners as we know them from many European countries. Rather, you will mostly go directly to the specialist who has something to do with whatever you need help with. Each specialty has a hospital/clinic – hence the “you should go to the hospital” comment.
In Denmark, you can also call directly to for instance a ear-nose-throat doctor to get an appointment if you have a problem related to that specialty, but the general practitioner is most patients’ primary contact with the healthcare system.

Here are some of the options you may come across in Korea:

병원 ~ hospital (includes everything; ER, heart surgery, etc. ect. as we know them from Western countries)
안과 ~ optical hospital
이비인후과 (comes from the hanja characters for 귀+코+인후) ~ ear-nose-throat
정형외과 ~ orthopaedic
산부인과 (notice that 산부인 ~ pregnant woman) ~ Obstetrics and gynocology
소아과 ~ pediatrics
내과 ~ internal medicine
치과 ~ dental issues
성형외과 ~ plastic surgery clinic
한의원 ~ oriental clinic

But what if you don’t know what’s wrong with you?
내과 is often the first stop for a patient who “just isn’t feeling well”. If you are just plain tired and not because of a regular sleep deficit, and you are beginning to wonder if something might actually be wrong with you, 내과 will take on the role of a GP who will order the necessary tests for you. The underlying thought is that if there is a problem it is likely to be related to something situated between your neck and your hips rather than your head or extremities, and therefore it is the job of an internal medic to do the initial check-up.
병원 is the first stop in emergencies.

Some people are proponents of traditional oriental medicine and will go to a clinic specialised in this.

Next time I watch a drama I will try to catch what they are actually saying because chances are the subtitles are saying “hospital” because it’s the least complicated option.


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