Recently, I bit the bullet and went in for my women’s exam. I was hesitant about going because I heard about and read some “interesting” stories from other expats about their experiences and it put me off for a while. Having worked a stint in public health, I knew the importance of regular checkups so I went anyway. This is how it went down.
In general, going to the doctor in Korea can be described as:
The Nascar pit stop metaphor fits because you go in, the doctor sees you for about two minutes, and then you’re outta there! Quick and also very cheap.
This is awesome when you go in for a cold or allergies, but it was a little strange having a similar experience for the women’s exam. So I went here for the exam. One of my friend’s recommended it. It looked very comfortable and cozy, even by western standards. The practice caters to foreigners and provides a lot of perks like an espresso machine in the lobby and English-speaking staff. Making the appointment over the phone was also easy; an American expat woman on staff did it all for me. After I checked in, I got paperwork to fill out, just like you would back home. Then I waited. An assistant came out to the lobby a few times to get clarification on some of my information. She spoke English okay, although I think she had a hard time understanding me sometimes. She came out about two or three more times. Then she asked me to follow her to get my blood pressure checked. Easy enough. Right next to the counter was a blood pressure machine like you would have at a pharmacy. She took my blood pressure and then began asking me about my medical history and if I had any symptoms.
Right. There. In. The. Lobby.
I explained that I was not comfortable sharing that information with other people around. There were only about two or three other people to see the doctor but at least three receptionists and five medical assistants just standing within earshot. I explained that I wasn’t comfortable talking about my medical history in a not-so-private setting, i.e. the front counter. The American lady who scheduled my appointment was there and mouthed to me, “Yeah, that’s okay!” The assistant gave me a puzzled look.
Next I was called in to see the doctor. I requested a female doctor but said a male doctor was fine if none were available. I figured I put it off long enough. He was very friendly and professional as he led me to the exam room. Imagine my surprise as I sat down across from him at his desk and more people filed into the room. I counted. Five people–NOT including me! Two English speaking medical staff (including the American woman), the doctor, and two of his assistants. I asked if it was normal to have so many people in the room for an annual appointment. The American woman assured me that in Korea, it was.
In this part I compare the Korean annual exam to its western counterpart. Before you read on, just know that I make references to the female reproductive system.
The doctor (very) briefly went over my medical history and then it was time for the exam. He pulled a curtain to cut off the office area from the exam room and he and two of his female assistants went into the exam area with me. I changed behind another curtain. Instead of a paper gown, they use paper skirts with slits on each side. The exam itself was fine. In Korea, instead of an exam table they have a special chair, like a dentist chair with stirrups. I got into the chair and settled into the stirrups trying to stifle the urge to giggle at the awkwardness of having two female assistants holding on to each leg and looking at my hooha along with the doctor. Yikes. The rest of it went very quickly. Everything was very state of the art. I got to see my uterus and ovaries with a sonogram. I thought the use of a light plastic speculum was genius. Much less uncomfortable than the heavy metal ones back home. The whole thing took less than five minutes. I was surprised that the visit didn’t include a breast exam, but didn’t worry about it too much.
After the exam, back in the office area, the doctor asked me if I had any questions or concerns. I thought that maybe I had a UTI coming on but I wasn’t about to explain any symptoms in front of five other people. I really wished for Western-style privacy at that moment. (Later on it turned out that I didn’t have one.) On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t get to be my hyperchondriac-self talking about any and every weird twinge or pain in the last few years.
All in all, the experience was just fine. What I didn’t like, besides the lack of privacy, is how little the national insurance program covers for a women’s health exam. Three dollars. That’s it. The rest I paid for out of pocket which still came out cheap, less than a hundred which included the sonogram.