I have heard and read a lot of horror stories about visiting the gynecologist in Korea during my five years here. Because of this, I’ve saved my visits for back home, even though it’s more expensive since I don’t have insurance in the US. Most of my female friends and acquaintances in Korea have told me that there is a curtain placed between the doctor and patient so they can’t see each other and that the doctor will often do things without first getting the consent of the patient, like an ultrasound or a biopsy. This would be totally unheard of in the US, where malpractice insurance costs an arm and a leg and there are entire classes taught in medical school regarding consent and liability. In the US being able to see your doctor and ask her (or him) questions is comforting; perhaps in Korea, because sexuality isn’t really talked about, it might be embarrassing to be able to see your doctor’s face while she’s looking at your vulva.
I’ve also read stories about women being asked to recount their entire sexual histories aloud in a waiting room full of other patients, or doctors calling a woman’s boss to report her pap results. Because individuality permeates US culture so thoroughly, complete privacy is expected in a medical setting, but the concept of privacy is much less important in communal cultures. Visiting the doctor here often involves getting on a scale, having blood pressure checked, or even getting blood drawn in a public area.
I found an English-speaking gynecologist through an expat website and was elated that her office was only a short bus ride away from my apartment! What I experienced there was astonishingly different from what I’d read and heard. There’s one doctor in the clinic; she’s retired, but still practicing privately. I was called into her office and had a conversation with her beforehand, specifically telling her that I didn’t want an ultrasound or a sonogram – just a regular old pap smear and STI panel. The receptionist took me into a changing room to put on a skirt with an elastic waist (no giant, awkward paper cover! This might freak out people who are germaphobes, but it’s definitely more environmentally-friendly…) and then called me into another room where I sat on a chair that was much like a dentist chair but with a super short seat. The back of the chair could be electronically raised or lowered. Instead of heel stirrups, there were thigh stirrups and a flat place to put your feet underneath them.
The doctor, who did not put a curtain between us, did a normal speculum / swab routine, but then she surprised me by telling me she was going to take a picture of my cervix. “Oh!” I said… “Okay.” Suddenly, a full-color picture of my cervix popped up on a monitor across the room, which was pretty rad. However, I then felt a sudden, slight, sharp pain. “What did you just do?” I asked. She told me that she had applied an acidic solution to my cervix to check for HPV, which I thought was kind of neat at the time, until I researched it and found out that not only does it not really test for HPV, but the CDC recommends against having it done.
Afterward, the doctor took out the speculum and she and the receptionist (who had been next to her the whole time taking notes!) lowered my feet onto the floor so I could go change. I went back into the doctor’s office, and this is where it got good. We talked for at least thirty minutes about which STIs she tests for on her STI panels, the prevalence of HPV in South Korea and how it’s changing, the HPV vaccine and how guidelines for who should receive it and when are changing, and the various types of abnormalities that can be seen during cervix photography. Her medical English was incredible, but that’s not what impressed me. What impressed me was that she treated sex and sexuality as a normal part of the human experience — basically, she was sex positive. She treated me as an educated person who was fully capable of discussing my sexual health. She even gave me her mobile number and invited me to drive around the coast with her so I could see parts of Korea that I normally don’t have access to while she practices her English!
It was a visit to the gynecologist that left me feeling confident and comfortable, which is a rare and beautiful thing. She called me yesterday to report my test results (all good – yea!) and reminded me to come hang out with her. And I actually want to.