Life in Korea: health checks for all (except the Korean teachers, of course)

So my school (Which Must Not Be Named - let's just call it a Large Adult Hagwon) has dictated decided that all foreign teachers must undergo a health check at their head office in Seoul. Not a huge deal to travel there - I walk by it some days while walking home - but it's the principle of the matter. What the school says, goes. They want to take your temperature every day when coming into work? They can do that. They want to fire you after you get the swine flu on vacation? Yep, they can do that too. They tell you to stay at home for a week after leaving the country - or saying you can't leave the country? They're doing it now. They want to get almost OCD about foreigners, whether they've left the country or not? The school can do just about anything they want. Next thing you know there'll be a 'mandatory exercise meeting' to keep everyone in shape (anyone else read 1984?)

I suppose this shouldn't surprise me - consider that the US has had stories of employers offering to help smokers quit (carrot), or charging them more for insurance (stick). This article (PDF) even talks about how to pass on surcharges to smokers while keeping it legal. That's not the focus of this particular post, however...

When you first arrive in Korea, your school will typically ask you (or accompany you, in some cases) to submit to a health check. It's required by the government as part of your visa, so the test is done for government purposes. One of my earliest posts briefly talked about it, and it wasn't that big a deal at the time. I had nothing health-wise to hide, and it seemed standard enough. My only (very minor) complaint was having to go back to work with a band-aid on my arm where they took some blood - right where all the elementary students would see and HAVE to know the story...

I still have nothing to hide health-wise, but why does my school bother? The government already has some pretty good safeties in place. The only reason I can see the school doing medical testing is either A: a genuine perk to ensure teachers are safe and healthy, or B: a marketing tactic - we're proud to say that all our teachers have been given a physical and are swine-flu free! In this economy and as expensive as the classes are, I wouldn't be surprised by the latter at all. According to the NHIC (National Health Insurance Corporation), anyone covered by Korea's national health insurance program can already get a fairly through physical for free once every two years (click FAQ, then 'health checkups'), so the testing by the school is either redundant or convenient, depending on your perspective.

Oh, and let's not forget about the point of the title - this check is only for the foreign teachers and Korean staff, not the Korean teachers who work at the same school. Why? "Oh, they're on different contracts.", one person from the school's office said. At my school, the Korean teachers work on three-month contracts, not one-year contracts like foreign teachers. Fine, so it's not a test just for the swine flu - if it were, a Korean is just as likely to get it as a foreigner who hasn't left the country since they arrived. I also learned that the Korean staff has been subject to an annual physical for awhile; this was the first year they've required foreign teachers to join.

My boss (a Korean woman who also handles the students and phone) passed on the message weeks ago, so I don't fault her for doing her job or passing on the message. She also helped me with the three-page form (all in Korean), though it's a little embarrassing going through your medical history with someone that's basically your boss. How often do you smoke? How often do you drink? How often do you exercise? Would you rather tell your boss the truth, or would you rather lie on a medical form? Neither seems especially favorable...

In any case, I head up to the school's office, complete with paperwork in hand. Height and weight check. Simple eye test (I LOVE how everyone handled the same steel eyeball-coverer). Simple hearing test. A blood pressure test - just fine at 120/80. And then, a blood test.


I try asking what they test for - and of course the nurse doesn't speak English. I ask again; no response. They take some blood, then I move to the next 'station' around the desk, complete with 3 pages of paper forms in one hand and the other hand holding a cotton pad over my vein. A simple oral check. In the next conference room - still holding the cotton pad in place - I was handed a little white plastic strip by a nurse who seemed to presume everyone knew exactly what to do. Go to the bathroom, pee on the strip, let her see the two colored squares to show I'm drug-free, then throw the strip in the oh-so-elegant plastic bag taped to the desk. Of course, if I did do drugs, it would've been too easy to pull a switch or fake it since no one followed me or was present.

Next, I arrive in a second small conference room, where a Real Doctor reviewed all the paperwork and asked me if I had ever had hypertension or heart problems. WTF does that have to do with anything? Heck, if you want to know for certain, why don't you do another test? He signed the form after reviewing the paperwork - yay I'm done!


"Go out the back door of the building and find the bus."


Excuse me? You have so many tests you can't fit them all on one floor? As it turns out, the bus carried the final piece of equipment: that infamous chest x-ray you hug. Now, try hugging it while 6 feet tall and standing in a bus designed for those no taller than 5'10". After a little moving around, we made it work, the doctor got his chest x-ray and took the paperwork, and now I'm done.

So now the school knows I'm healthy. Here's hoping this is the last I've heard of this stupid BS for a long time to come. Let the school send their stupid marketing newsletter in the name of retaining or reassuring students - OR if they do genuinely care about their teachers, buy the swine flu vaccines for us and put the worry entirely out of your students mind. Either way, I'm moving on - I have better things to do during my non-working time.

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe - 2009