Health care can look like this: a brief personal tale from South Korea

Estimated reading time 8 mins.

The medical profession doesn’t just sell relief from pain, but peace of mind. And we should certainly be willing to pay a price for that which, in some cases, only it can offer us. But how much? Around this time last year, I heard a story on Facebook of a friend in the US who mistakenly took the inhale plus exhale of his infant child’s breaths as two instead of one breath and, alarmed at the accelerated rate, took her to emergency only to be made aware of his mistake. Here is a case of this hospital delivering peace of mind to a relieved father, and grateful for that he ought to be.

But the story turns less cute and benevolent when it concludes in him being charged over $700, and I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I live in Korea, and stories like that often end in inverse fashion, the punchline being how little I pay for the relief, comfort, or peace of mind I receive from my health care providers. The following is a brief account of one such episode.

Around the same time my friend shared his above ordeal, I had just returned home from a holiday in the United States where I had attended an impactful intellectual conference. I was motivated and invigorated mentally, although crashed physically. The sickness which had begun to drag me down while still in Virginia had overtaken me for a couple weeks thereafter, with stomach upset, persistent headaches, and nausea, leaving me lying down most of the time, unable to even read a book or look at a TV or computer screen.

But the following week, just as the fall university semester was to start, it seemed the storm was passing, and I was feeling great by the Monday of my first class. I was inspired to get a fresh haircut, was able to go back to the gym, and I was my energetic self in front of my new students over the first few days, feeling on top of things, clear-headed, strong, flying. But on Thursday afternoon of that first week of joyously superior health, concerns started to brew anew, only it wasn’t nausea or anything of the sort. Rather, I felt something odd going on inside my left ear.

I invite you now to play doctor and attempt your own diagnosis, as I tried myself, given the following information:   

It was a popping—no, not so much a popping—but rather like someone was flicking a little straw inside my ear, making a hollow ‘Ping! Ping! Pong! Pong!’ sound every time I moved my jaw, or manually wiggled my outer ear, or sometimes just walking. There was no pain, and my hearing was unimpaired. There was not so much worry as yet, only questions running through my head which would grow to become worry if any symptoms exacerbated themselves. I imagined that some tiny bone inside my ear was either fractured or, more hopefully, just twisted out of place and rubbing against some others. However, there had been no trauma to explain such ideas.

In any case, while the general health and renewed energy I had recaptured were still otherwise at full capacity, I was frustrated that some new medical issue might become something serious. I recounted my symptoms to my wife as clearly as I could, just for the record, so that we would be able to explain from whence the new problem developed should a real issue arise. We decided presently that I would sleep on it, hoping that something would pop itself back into or out of place, and all would be well in the morning.

No such luck. I awoke to the immediately obvious disappointment that the straw-popping annoyance inside my ear was unmoved. I reported to my wife that such was the case, and she made a call to see what time the doctor’s offices were open.

Several clinics are situated within the same or adjacent buildings in most neighborhoods.

There are three clinics within the range of three adjacent buildings on a street right down from our home, so when we arrived in a general parking lot across from these buildings just before the 9:00 opening time, having no good reason to choose one over the other, we headed toward the one which was most directly staring at us after getting out of the car. I laughed and remarked to my wife at the luxury of abundance.

In the anteroom, my wife gave my name and we sat. There were a few older folks there and one infant, but no longer than a minute after giving my name were we called into an office. Inside, I was greeted by a doctor and a nurse and was immediately seated upright in what looked like a modern dentist’s chair, which was among the impressive amount of state-of-the-art equipment packed into the small room. As my wife explained my issue, the doctor was already looking inside my right ear with a cabled ear camera, and I could see the inside of it on a very large screen in shockingly high definition. I didn’t know there was so much in there! Not to worry, he said, as this was just a preliminary scan as to compare against my troubled left ear. He then inserted the camera into said left ear and within a couple seconds identified the problem. My chair was turned so I could have a look at the monitor.

A hair! A thick hair (huge on the screen) beating up against the membrane like a drum. It explained everything I had experienced and questioned over the past 20 hours. Of course! The doctor delicately went inside with some tools and removed the hair in a few seconds. Problem solved.

My wife and I smiled, laughed a little, and thanked the doctor, who seemed a little embarrassed at receiving such effusive praise and gushing gratitude with such amazement at something which he, I assume, thought was pretty standard. But for us, it was quite a feat, and in any case removal of great stress and annoyance. He had delivered peace of mind, and I was very appreciative. A more than satisfied customer indeed.

So what about the punchline?

We paid 4500 won (about $4 USD) and walked out, just as easily as we had walked in (without appointment, recall). My wife explained that it was “only so expensive” because I had never been to that clinic before, and so had to pay an extra charge.

And this story is not exceptional. It is my repeated experience over my 17 years living in Korea that I walk in off the street without an appointment to any clinic, get prompt and quality treatment with what seems the latest equipment, and then pay relatively little.

And this story is not exceptional. It is my repeated experience over my 17 years living in Korea that I walk in off the street without an appointment to any clinic, get prompt and quality treatment with what seems the latest equipment, and then pay relatively little–as if I were shopping for milk or a phone or any other good or service. Of course, it is not always a minute or two before I am shown into a room, and things do not always run as smoothly and perfectly as the above story. But it is nonetheless true that I always come away thinking that my experience would be impossible in my home country Canada or, from all accounts–including the outrageous story told in the opening above, in the US. I will have to describe more stories in detail in the future, but for now, you’ll have to take my word for it that this experience is far from an anomaly.

I can’t say with full clarity what is the cause of the high accessibility, affordability, and superior quality of the health care available to me in Korea, as it is especially hard to disentangle the free-market elements from the bureaucratic impediments. But the scope of this post is not intended to spread into causes. The goal of this post is primarily to share the reality to people in countries like Canada and the US that such is possible. I wonder sometimes if people have grown so long to expect that health care is just so complicated a value that it just has to be expensive and difficult to access.

People often wonder why many Westerners choose to settle in Korea. There are many advantages I give up by living here, many things I miss from home, and many things which frustrate me and which want for change, no doubt. But one of the main reasons I choose to live here is because of the pace at which development takes place. And how this rapid innovation and progress manifests in the sphere of health care is one of the greatest benefits of living here. It affords me great comfort and relief in times of illness or injury and, even more importantly, provides the security in knowing that I have excellent, affordable, and accessible care when I need it. With that, I live with great peace of mind.

But hold on a minute!

The mystery as to what had ailed me has been solved, and you can congratulate yourself if you had it diagnosed before my doctor’s visit. But let us have further fun at solving the outstanding mystery, as you may be asking the same question I was after leaving the doctor’s office: How did such a long, thick hair get inside my ear? It was about ¾ inches in reality, so it certainly wasn’t an ear hair. (I’m not eighty years old!)

I love Agatha Christie novels, and I’m a particular fan of her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. Now that you’ve had time to think through some solutions, let us refer to the Belgian genius, as he would admonish, “Ah, ma foie! As usual, you listen but do not hear, cher Hastings! Monsieur had mentioned getting a haircut only days before. It was a cut hair from his own head which had sat there for a few days, and only on Thursday did it shift as to produce an inner racket.”

(I was overly pleased at myself when I deduced this solution, and it is the main reason I share it here. But let us pretend that you really were squirming with an intense desire to satisfy the loose ends of the story.)

To everyone’s good health!

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