Health in South Korea

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Cancer is the leading cause of death in South Korea
Suicide is the biggest cause of death to those in their 10s, 20s and 30s

South Korea has the 11th highest life expectancy in the world[1] and the second least obese people in the OECD.[2] The male smoking rate is 49.8% (female 4.2%).[1] Suicide in South Korea is a serious and widespread problem. The suicide rate is the highest in the OECD in 2012 (29.1 deaths per 100,000 persons).[3] Additionally, South Korea's sucide rate is also ranked the highest in the world in 2012 according to WHO data (36.8 deaths per 100,000 persons).[4]

Chronic disease[edit]

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, chronic illness account for the majority of diseases in South Korea, a condition exacerbated by the health care system’s focus on treatment rather than prevention. The incidence of chronic disease in South Korea hovers around 24 percent. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) rate of prevalence at the end of 2003 was less than 0.1 percent. In 2001 central government expenditures on health care accounted for about 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).[5] South Korea is experiencing a growing elderly population, which leads to an increase in chronic degenerative diseases. The proportion of the population over 65 is expected to rise from 13% in 2014 to 38% in 2050. Majority of health care professionals treat patients on curative, rather than preventive treatments, because of the lack of financial incentives for preventive treatments.[6]

Health insurance system[edit]

South Korea has universal health insurance, which started in July 1977. All medical societies were merged into the National Health Insurance Service in 2000. Nearly all South Koreans are beneficiaries of the program, therefore almost reaching the goal of providing health insurance for all South Korean citizens. The insurance is funded by contributions, government subsidies, and tobacco surcharges and the National Health Insurance Corporation is the main supervising institution. The program is fair in practice; it gives the same amount of medical expenses and reimbursements for all citizens, regardless of how much they are paid. It administers longer term care services for the elderly.[6] The National Health Insurance started to develop deficits starting in 1996, when the total health expenditures exceeded the total income. The government has been raising the insurance premiums to make up for the deficit, but many health policy experts predict that the increase will not solve the deficit.[7] About 54% of health expenditure is met by the National Health Insurance Service. The remaining 46% is mostly met by out of pocket contributions. Healthcare expenditure is around 7.2% of GDP, and has increased from $64 billion in 2009 to $113 billion in 2015.[8]


The number of hospital beds per 1000 population is 10, well above the OECD countries' average of 5.[9] According to Mark Britnell hospitals dominate the health system. 94% of hospitals (88% of beds) are privately owned. 30 of the 43 tertiary hospitals are run by private universities. 10 more are run by publicly owned universities. Payment is made on a fee-for-service basis. There is no direct government subsidy for hospitals. This encourages hospitals to expand and discourages community services. [10]

The Korea International Medical Association has been formed to encourage medical tourism. The Korea Times reported in a series of articles that Korean hospitals have a discriminatory pricing policy, charging foreigners two to three times more than the full-fee for locals.[11] The paper revealed that the price disparity in medical fees for foreign patients is extremely high, considering that the difference between the lowest and highest fees for the most-sought-after procedures exceeds more than 10 times on average.[12] It claimed the government is overlooking soaring medical fees on foreign patients, who are unprotected from malpractice, discriminatory charging, overpricing and patient privacy rights under the Korean Medical Law.[12][13]

Unequal distribution of physicians[edit]

There are regional disparities between urban and rural areas for health professionals. The number of primary care doctors in cities is 37.3% higher than rural areas, and the problem is growing because younger physicians are choosing to practice in the cities.[14]


  1. ^ a b "World Health Statistics 2016: Monitoring health for the SDGs". WHO. 
  2. ^ "OBESITY Update" (PDF). OECD. June 2014. 
  3. ^ "Suicide rates". OECD. 2012. Retrieved September 20, 2016.  Lithuania is ranked first but is not an OECD member state as of September 2016.
  4. ^ "World Health Statistics 2016: Monitoring health for the SDGs". WHO. 2016. Retrieved September 20, 2016.  Page 63. WHO member states with a population of less than 250,000 are not included in the statistics.
  5. ^ South Korea country profile. Library of Congress Federal Research Division (May 2005). This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  6. ^ a b "Song, Y. J. (2009). The South Korean Health Care System. International Medical Community, 52(3), 206-209. doi:February 25, 2014"
  7. ^ Kwon, S. (2008). Thirty Years of National Health Insurance in South Korea: Lessons for Achieving Universal Health Care Coverage. Oxford Journal, 24(1), 63-71. doi:March 3, 2014
  8. ^ Britnell, Mark (2015). In Search of the Perfect Health System. London: Palgrave. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-137-49661-4. 
  9. ^ CIA. (2014). The world factbook: Korea, south. Retrieved 1 Mar 2014
  10. ^ Britnell, Mark (2015). In Search of the Perfect Health System. London: Palgrave. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-137-49661-4. 
  11. ^ "Korea Times, Major Hospitals Overcharge Foreigners". 2010-02-15. Retrieved 2011-10-29. 
  12. ^ a b "Korea Times, Foreigners Victims of Inflated Medical Fees". 2010-02-18. Retrieved 2011-10-29. 
  13. ^ "Korea Overlooks Soaring Medical Fees on Foreigners". Retrieved 2011-10-29. 
  14. ^ Lee, J (2003). Health care reform in South Korea: Success or Failure?.93(1), 44-51. doi:March 3, 2014