With hundreds of kids swarming around you every day, unless you have some superhuman immune system, you’re probably going to get sick at some point. Unfortunately, kids love to cough and sneeze into their hands...and then touch their notebooks and tablets...and then hand their stuff to you.
I wish I had one of those classic “Foreigner gets sick in Korea and gets really cheap healthcare and is completely healed two days later” stories, but mine is a little bit more complicated. Instead of going to a small clinic, I made the mistake of going to what is maybe the biggest hospital in Korea. But I learned a lot, and I hope it will help some of you!
As soon as I started to feel sick, I let my manager know. I normally would just wait out the common cold or flu, but she urged me to do everything possible to get better, which included visiting the doctor and taking medicine. After asking my coworkers where I could go near our area for an English-speaking doctor, I had two choices - a small clinic and Asan Medical Center. I was a little bit nervous about going to the clinic - all I knew about it was that it was above a gym, and I couldn’t even find it on Kakao Maps, whereas Asan has an English-speaking International Healthcare Services floor....so I opted for Asan.
The best place for research - Reddit.
Before I went, I did some research online about what to expect at the doctor’s, and all the foreigners were raving about how cheap healthcare is in Korea. Most people said they only paid 5,000-10,000won for the doctor’s visit plus prescription. So I wasn’t so worried about the small number in my bank account I was trying to stretch til my first paycheck. But somehow, I had completely forgotten one of the most important things they tell you during study abroad orientation: Don’t go to a big hospital unless you need the emergency room; it’ll cost an arm and a leg more than a clinic. Whoops.
The visit was great - truly top quality, professional care by a doctor who was completely fluent in English and very caring. But once I got to the billing office, I was taken aback by the price. 67,790won for the visit, and 20,000won just for a copy of the doctor’s note! Looking back, this all makes sense. Only later did I learn that Asan is one of the biggest hospitals, maybe the biggest, in Korea. For a common cold/flu case, I had gone to the place where people go for top-notch cancer treatment! No wonder the price was 10 times more than expected.
How did I not realize how big of a deal Asan is??
Another hiccup though, was that I was expecting my National Health Insurance to cut down the cost significantly, but the billing employee couldn’t find me in the NHI system. He asked for two things I had never heard of or received: my insurance card and my registered Korean name. After an hour of talking to the employee and my manager, we realized that my insurance hadn’t been activated yet, and I would need to pay out of pocket for the time being and try to get reimbursed later.
Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending! Chungdahm HR promptly activated my health insurance in the next few days, and I was able to get about half of the cost reimbursed by making a trip back to the hospital two weeks later. My manager was super helpful throughout the whole process, calling the hospital for me multiple times to sort things out.
Things ended as well as they could have, but dealing with a high bill without health insurance added unnecessary stress on top of being sick that I wish I could have avoided. Plus, this was still about 5x more expensive than if I had gone to a clinic instead. Part of this experience has made me reflect on my healthcare biases coming from the U.S., where I always went to big hospitals to see doctors. Korea just has a different healthcare system and culture that I need to accept and trust. I still haven’t gone to a small clinic yet, but next time I get sick, that’s where I’ll be headed.
Please learn from my mistakes! Here are some things you can do in the first month that you arrive to prepare yourself for when you (inevitably) get sick:
- Teach your students good hygiene habits! Get them to sneeze and cough into their arms, not their hands. I know one teacher who has her students go wash their hands immediately after sneezing. Another religiously uses disinfectant wipes on their tablets every night after class.
- Check with HR that your health insurance is activated and also find out your registered Korean name just in case. This will be after you receive your ARC.
- Find a reputable local clinic. Ask your manager and other teachers at your branch where they’ve gone before. The cost will be 3-10 times cheaper!
- Get the flu shot! Either get it before you come, or again, find a local clinic or hospital that will do flu vaccines.
- Communicate constantly with your manager. As soon as you get sick, let your manager know, and keep updating them on how well you’re feeling. It’s not easy to find subs, so they need all the heads up they can get. If you really can’t teach for the day, be clear and give them as many hours notice as possible.
Shuang Guan is a Swarthmore College graduate (Math and Linguistics) from New Haven, CT. Thanks to kpop and kdramas, she decided to try out a summer language program in Seoul in 2015, and immediately fell in love with the vibrant energy of the city, the food, and the language. She then studied abroad at Yonsei University in 2018 for a semester, but wanted to try completely immersing herself in living and working in Seoul for a year, so she’s now back for the third time. Teaching English in Korea seemed like the perfect fit for her interests in Korean, traveling, working with kids, and applied linguistics. In her free time, she loves trying out different bakeries and de-stressing at noraebang. She is currently working at the Chungdahm Institute Songpa branch in Seoul.