|Salim Health Cooperation in Gusan-dong, northwestern Seoul, has both an all-gender restroom (left) and a women’s restroom.|
Korea has started to embrace lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights over the years, but the nation still has a long way to go before providing adequate healthcare and treatment focusing on transgender people.
Nothing shows this better than the fact that Korea has yet to know the exact transgender population in Korea.
According to a research conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs in 2016, Korea’s transgender population could be anywhere between 50,000 to 250,000. Also, the report states that the number is highly unreliable as it is only a rough estimate.
As of now, transgender folks here are little different from “refugees,” in that they receive little to no support and sympathy from the government and the people.
One of the most serious problems local transgenders face is medical treatment. In Korea, therapeutic measures that change the sex of transgender do not receive any form of health insurance coverage. Also, even without the financial burdens, few doctors can perform such operations as the medical schools do not provide the necessary training.
Such lack of options has left many Korean transgenders dependent on hormone therapy.
According to a survey conducted by a human rights organization in 2006, 66.7 percent of the Korean transgender population goes through some form of hormone therapy. Even with hormone therapy, many of them, for fear of public discrimination, are known to be self-medicating.
However, self-medication is dangerous and can lead to severe adverse effects, according to one of the few experts on this issue.
|Professor Choo Hae-in|
“It is necessary to check regularly for any side effects and complications while receiving hormone therapy,” said Professor Choo Hae-in, one of such rare physicians in Korea who provide hormone therapy to transgenders.
Although Korea has no official guideline on treating transgenders, many foreign guidelines strongly recommend regular consultations with doctors before going through hormone therapy, Professor Choo said in a recent interview with Korea Biomedical Review.
Choo added that patients need to visit hospitals more frequently during the initial stage of the treatment to control side effects and drug concentration levels.
“Of course, if a patient finds hormone levels and cycles that best suits them, they do not have to come in as much as their conditions will start to stabilize,” she noted. “However, it is still vital for them to receive regular checkups.”
To better help Korean transgenders, Choo and her hospital, “Salim Health Cooperation,” have also been working on setting a standard guideline for transgender hormone therapy that best suits Koreans.
Choo recalled she had to start from scratch as there were no official guidelines for hormone treatment for Koreans,
“In foreign countries, the guidelines for hormone treatment are well established,” Choo said. “The guideline describes in detail the kind of test and treatment a patient needs.”
The guideline, however, is not tailored for Koreans, she added.
“Although not perfect, we have managed to establish a guideline more suited for treating Koreans,” Choo said. “Our guidelines are open free of charge to any hospitals that want to help treat transgenders in need.”
To help transgenders, however, Choo believes that the government has to provide insurance coverage for related surgeries and therapies.
“I believe the public’s views will also change over time,” she said. “However, insurance coverage on transgender treatment needs to happen right now.”
Choo noted that surgery and treatment are not something that can be labeled optional for transgenders.
“For them, it is a matter of life and death, and the need to cover such treatment with our national insurance program is a must,” Choo said.
According to a study published by the Korean Society of Law and Policy on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) in 2014, the financial burden for transgenders is exceptionally high. The study showed that transgender surgery costs approximately 40 million won ($35,800) -- 12.31 million won for genital modification surgery, 6.8 million won for breast surgery, and 19.9 million won for other operations such as hormone therapy.
"Recently, medical opinions on transgender surgeries have shifted from cosmetic or experimental procedures to surgery that transgenders desperately require," the report wrote.
As proof, the report added that a meta-analysis on 1,833 transgenders found that 80 percent of those who received medical treatment, including hormone therapy, increased gender identity and life satisfaction.
"It is also necessary to provide medical training related to transgender treatment for medical students,” Choo said. “Teaching them emotional factors such as attitudes while treating transgenders is also important.”
Such education can eliminate discrimination and prejudice against transgenders and create a transgender-friendly environment, she added.
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