Part of a 100-year tradition in KoreaDr. John Linton’s voice booms as he calls toward the restaurant’s kitchen in Korean, asking for the music to be turned down. Sitting in the Burger King on the Yonsei University campus, it’s obvious Dr. Linton is well-known here. The girls behind the counter nod, and the music immediately drops to a lower level.
Dr. Linton has been the director of the International Health Care Center at Severance Hospital at the university since 1991. For foreigners trying to navigate the Korean healthcare system he’s a beacon of light. But his sense of purpose is driven by more than providing a convenient service to Seoul’s expatriates. He even views himself as part of a unique group of people who can help reunite the peninsula.
His ties to Korea are multifaceted and deeply rooted. He is the only foreigner licensed to practice medicine in the country, architect of its modern ambulance service and champion of tuberculosis victims in North Korea, not to mention his family tree, which spans three generations here.
Although he has maintained his American citizenship, he differs from other foreigners in Korea because in a sense he really isn’t one. Born to American missionary parents in 1959 in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, he grew up in Suncheon, South Jeolla province, playing alongside Korean children. He’s fluent in the language and claims he actually “thinks in Korean.”
“Figuratively speaking, I crossed the mission wall and never came back. This is why I’m so close to Korea. I grew up with the village kids,” Dr. Linton says. “Just over 40 years ago, I was sleeping in mud-thatched huts with my friends. Can you believe it?”
His relatives have endured the country’s turbulent modern history just as Koreans have. Dr. Linton’s grandfather, William Linton, came to Korea in 1912 as a missionary and worked as a principal at a school in the city of Jeonju. Korea was already under Japanese rule, and as World War II approached the occupiers intensified their pressure on Mr. Linton to worship at Japanese shrines. The elder Linton fled the country for the war’s duration.
There is a glint of pride in Dr. Linton’s eyes as he describes how his grandfather returned to build a public toilet on the site of the former Japanese shrine in Jeonju. It remains today.
In rapid-fire sentences, Dr. Linton runs through his own life, describing how he spent three scattered years in the United States before the age of 20, including one year in Asheville, North Carolina, attending university. That was long enough for him.
“I said, ‘Dad I’m finished and I want to go to medical school in Korea,’” Dr. Linton recalls. And so he did. In March 1980, amid a coup and rebellion on the peninsula, he enrolled in pre-medical studies at Yonsei University. Seven grueling years later, he was the first foreigner to pass the Korean licensing exam.
A few years later, he became the head of Severance’s clinic. From the turn of the 20th century until the mid-1980s, the International Health Center at Severance Hospital was the only place in Korea where foreigners could get medical treatment. From the early 1990s, international clinics started popping up all over Seoul; there are 15 at present.
“Having an international clinic at your hospital is good public relations,” Dr. Linton says. “If you have foreigners coming in and out of your hospital Koreans are very reassured. Dating back to when missionaries first came, there is a very warm feeling here towards Western medicine in general.”
The clinic operates on a tiered fee schedule. There are fees for those with Korean health insurance, international fees ― which are considerably higher ― and hardship fees, which are offered to those who can’t afford the other two.
Those paying the international fees take advantage of Dr. Linton’s extensive connections at the hospital to get treatment right away. “Eighty percent of those who come to us needing specialized care get it immediately,” he says.
For Dr. Linton, the purpose of the clinic is clear. “It’s a teaching institution. It’s a great learning and cultural experience for the young interns at the hospital to treat foreign patients in English. Foreigners here are strangers in this land. And when strangers are sick, they need to be helped.”
He feels a debt of gratitude to Korea for allowing him to study and practice medicine here. And that has driven much of the work he’s done since then, such as helping to revamp the country’s emergency medical response services and assisting TB victims in North Korea.
“Philosophically speaking, I had the privilege of going to Yonsei. This was my way of paying the country back,” he says. But for him the work goes beyond medicine. He believes his visits to North Korea will play a role in eventually uniting the country in which he grew up. “People like me should help facilitate North and South Korea getting back together. Superpowers took them apart, but shouldn’t put them together.”
‘Major differences’ in U.S. system
Asked if he has any plans to head back to the United States, he says he is content practicing medicine here, and notes that there are some major differences between the healthcare systems in Korea and the United States that he has trouble reconciling.
“When someone comes in [to his practice here] I can examine what they think is necessary. It’s like, ‘if you feel pain come and see me.’ I couldn’t practice in the States because the medical practices aren’t based on the patient anymore but on protecting yourself from medical litigation.”
Regarding the biggest problems currently facing the Korean healthcare system, Dr. Linton says there are three: the amount of time patients spend with doctors, the use of medicine and the insurance system.
“Koreans must learn medicine is poison. Three balanced meals and exercise are most important,” says Dr. Linton. “Prevention is the best medicine. There’s so many myths out there, things need to be more scientific.
“In Korea, two to three times more of the money collected from insurance is spent on the common cold than on cancer. Funds should be spent wiser,” he adds. “There needs to be a system of deductibles. Let the patient pay for the common cold. The amount the patients have to pay should be capped.”
As Dr. Linton prepares to leave the restaurant, he offers some final thoughts on the Korean system. “Korean medicine must change if it’s going to be competitive. Reform from within is better than revolution,” he says. “The healthcare system must become a security net, but money must also come in from the private sector.”
by Grant Surridge