Health in South Korea

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Lee Jong-wook, former director-general of the World Health Organization, who dedicated his work to combating tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, along with eradicating polio.

South Koreans have the right to universal healthcare, ranking first in the OECD for healthcare access.[1] Satisfaction of healthcare has been consistently among the highest in the world – South Korea was rated as the fourth most efficient healthcare system by Bloomberg.[2][3]

The quality of South Korean healthcare has been ranked as being among the world's best. It had the OECD's highest colorectal cancer survival rate at 72.8%, significantly ahead of Denmark's 55.5% or the UK's 54.5%. It ranked second in cervical cancer survival rate at 76.8%, significantly ahead of Germany's 64.5% or the U.S. at 62.2%.[4] Hemorrhagic stroke 30 day in-hospital mortality per 100 hospital discharges was the OECD's third lowest at 13.7 deaths, which was almost twice as low as the U.S. at 22.3 or France's 24 deaths. For Ischemic stroke, it ranked second at 3.4 deaths, which was almost a third of Australia's 9.4 or Canada's 9.7 deaths. South Korean hospitals ranked 4th for MRI units per capita and 6th for CT scanners per capita in the OECD. It also had the OECD's second largest number of hospital beds per 1000 people at 9.56 beds, which was over triple that of Sweden's 2.71, Canada's 2.75, the UK's 2.95, or the U.S. at 3.05 beds.[5]

Obesity in South Korea has been consistently among the world's lowest - only 3% of the population were obese, which was the second lowest in the OECD, compared to over 30% in the U.S. or 23% in the UK.[6] As a result, mortality from cardiovascular disease was the fourth lowest in the OECD.[7][8]

Life expectancy has been rising rapidly and South Korea ranked 11th in the world for life expectancy in 2016.[9] South Korea has among the lowest HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate in the world, with just 0.1% of the population being infected, significantly lower than the U.S. at 0.6%, France's 0.4%, and the UK's 0.3% prevalence rate. South Korea ranked highest in influenza vaccination in Asia at 311 vaccines per 1,000 people.[10]

Suicide in South Korea is a serious and widespread problem. The suicide rate was the highest in the OECD in 2012 (29.1 deaths per 100,000 persons).[11] Lithuania is ranked first, but is not an OECD member state as of September 2016.[12]

Health insurance system[edit]

Social health insurance was introduced with the 1977 National Health Insurance Act, which provided industrial workers in large corporations with health insurance.[13] The program was expanded in 1979 to include other workers, such as government employees and private teachers. This program was thereafter progressively rolled out to the general public, finally achieving universal coverage in 1989.[14] Despite being able to achieve universal health care, this program resulted in more equity issues within society as it grouped people into different categories based on demographic factors like geographical location and employment type.[15] These different groups ultimately received different coverage from their respective healthcare providers.

The healthcare system was initially reliant on not-for-profit insurance societies to manage and provide the health insurance coverage. As the program expanded from 1977 to 1989, the government decided to allow different insurance societies to provide coverage for different sections of the population in order to minimize government intervention in the health insurance system. This eventually produced a very inefficient system, which resulted in more than 350 different health insurance societies.[16] A major healthcare financing reform in 2000 merged all medical societies into the National Health Insurance Service.[17] This new service became a single-payer healthcare system in 2004. The four-year delay occurred because of disagreements in the legislature on how to properly assess self-employed individuals in order to determine their contribution.[13]

The insurance system is funded by contributions, government subsidies, and tobacco surcharges and the National Health Insurance Corporation is the main supervising institution. Employed contributors are expected to pay 5.08% of their income while self-employed contributions are calculated based on the income and property of the individual. The national government provides 14% of the total amount of funding and the tobacco surcharges account for 6% of the funding.[18] The total expenditure on health insurance as a percentage of gross domestic product has increased from 4.0% in 2000 to 7.1% in 2014.[19] In 2014, total health expenditure per capita was $2,531, compared to a global average of $1058, and government expenditure on health per capita was $1368.[20]


The number of hospital beds per 1000 population is 10, well above the OECD countries' average of 5.[21] 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.[22]

The Korea International Medical Association has been formed to encourage medical tourism. Nearly 400,000 medical tourists visited South Korea in 2013 and that number is projected to rise to 1 million by 2020.[23] Compared to procedures done in the US, patients can save between 30 to 85% if they have the treatment in South Korea. [24][25] It has been reported that some Korean hospitals charge foreign patients more than local patients due to customized service such as translation and airport pickup. As a result, some medical tourists have complained that this is unfair[26][27]

Health issues[edit]


Suicide rate by gender and age in South Korea 2012, per 100,000 people


According to the WHO in 2015, the age standardized prevalence of tobacco smoking in the Republic of South Korea is 49.8%.[28] Starting on January 1, 2015, the Ministry of Health banned the use of smoking in the café, restaurants, or bars.[29] Facilities, such as government offices, public institutions, public transport facilities and schools have become smoke-free zones.[29] In 1986, the Republic of Korea mandated tobacco manufactures to include warnings on cigarette packages.[29] The violation against the smoke policy include a fine, which is less than 100 thousand won.[30]

Drinking alcohol[edit]

South Korea is No. 1 in hard liquor consumption in the world

According to the World Health Organization, South Koreans rank No. 28 in alcohol consumption over all (2015) and No. 22 in the OECD (2013).[31][32] According to Euromonitor data, it is number 1 in hard-liquor consumption (2013).[33][34][35] Age-standardized death rate of liver cirrhosis for male in South Korea is 20.6% of which 70.5% is attributed to alcohol.[36] Prevalence of alcohol use disorders (including alcohol dependence and harmful use of alcohol) is 10.3% of male in South Korea, more than twice of 4.6% of Western Pacific Region.[36]

Infectious Disease[edit]

An outbreak, MERS occurred in South Korea in May 2015 by a Korean who visited the Middle East and carried the MERS virus to Korea. Seven Months later, the government officially declared that the outbreak is over.[37]

Air pollution[edit]

South Korea near bottom of world survey of air quality
   Very Unhealthy
   Unhealthy for sensitive groups

According to the Environmental Performance Index 2016, South Korea ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in terms of air quality. More than 50 percent of the populations in South Korea exposed to dangerous levels of fine dust.[38]


South Korea ranks last place among OECD countries for tuberculosis. Its three major indexes: incidence rate, prevalence rate and death rate are the worst among the OECD countries since 1996 when South Korea became a member of OECD.[39]

2014 Tuberculosis statistics - OECD (per 100,000 person) [39]
Rank Incidence rate Prevalence rate Death rate
Country Value Country Value Country Value
1  South Korea 86.0  South Korea 101.0  South Korea 3.8
2  Portugal 25.0  Portugal 29.0  Estonia 2.1
3  Mexico
21.0  Mexico 27.0  Japan 1.8
Average 12.0 Average 14.8 Average 0.7

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).[40] 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.[18]

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.[41]


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