Taking the fear out of the chair“Will I have one of those anesthetics where I will be knocked out cold?” asked the young American woman in a dentist’s chair in a Hannam-dong clinic, waiting to have a wisdom tooth removed.
“No, you will know what’s going on throughout the entire operation,” her dentist gently replied.
“Will it hurt?” she asked him, nervously.
The dentist smiled benevolently, and pinched her slightly on the arm. She didn’t even flinch. “That’s how much it will hurt,” the dentist, Seo Hong-Seok, said with a smile.
“It’s really important to know what your patient is thinking about,” said Dr. Seo, who runs Hannam-dong’s Modern Dental Clinic. “It’s all psychological.”
For physicians, that’s basic stuff ― Bedside Manner 101.
But Dr. Seo, whose dental clinic is one of the few in Seoul with a mostly foreign clientele, says it’s not that common in dentistry here.
Before opening his current clinic two and a half years ago, where many of his patients come from the diplomatic community, Dr. Seo ran a clinic in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, for seven years. He opened the new clinic, near the UN Village, after foreign friends in Seoul told him they had trouble getting what they considered proper treatment.
“Foreigners complain to me that it’s really hard to get dental treatment at local clinics, including my British friends,” Mr. Seo says.
The biggest problem for foreigners seeking dental treatment in Seoul, not surprisingly, is the language barrier, according to Dr. Seo.
But he also says many foreigners aren’t accustomed to the long waits they’ll experience at many local clinics, or to the limited personal attention they can get because of many clinics’ crowded schedules.
That was the case at his clinic in Seocho-dong, he says.
“Back then, I was seeing 100 to 200 patients a day,” he says.
“The problem with having too many patients is that we are not given much time to explain thoroughly to the patient what the operation will be, and how it will be conducted,” he says. “ They have no idea what’s going on.”
His staff of four ― including two nurses and a second dentist ― is fluent in English, and Dr. Seo speaks Japanese as well. In the waiting room, coffee, tea and reading material are available. An aromatic candle burns. There’s even an oxygen mask, which apprehensive patients can use while waiting.
“It usually helps people to relax, and it really does clear the mind,” Dr. Seo says.
The operation on the American woman went without any major problems, lasting only half an hour. Even Dr. Seo seemed surprised by how smoothly it went. He reviewed the procedure with the patient, referring to an X-ray image on a computer screen right next to the dentist’s chair.
“Can I keep the tooth as a souvenir?” the patient asked.
The problem with many Korean clinics, Dr. Seo says, is that because their patients are covered under the national health care system, they have to take in a high volume of patients.
“The government sets prices so low, the only way dental clinics can survive is to accept as many patients as possible,” he said.
Staff members at Seoul Su Dental Hospital and Cheongdam Su Dental Hospital say dentists there receive 15 to 20 patients a day, or perhaps 30 at most. A nurse at Su Dental Hospital, however, said she’d worked at another clinic where a dentist saw 50 patients daily. “It’s possible for some dental clinics to see 100 patients,” the nurse said.
Because his mostly foreign clientele has other forms of insurance, often through their employers, Dr. Seo says he’s able to restrict his schedule to five or six patients a day. The clinic is only open seven hours a day ― and that includes two hours for lunch.
“I’ve started to relax myself and really enjoy my job, which at the end helps the patients,” Mr. Seo says.
by Lee Ho-jeong
The Seoul Metropolitan Goverment’s English-language Web site, http://english.Seoul.go.kr, has a list of dental clinics that provide foreign-language service, including English, Japanese and Chinese. For British citizens residing in Seoul, the British Embassy’s administrative office maintains a list of dental clinics with English-language service; the embassy number is (02) 3210-5500.