For those of you considering laser eye surgery in Korea, I wanted to add yet another blog post about it, if only to save you some of the hours and hours of research me and my friend have done.
The thing about laser eye surgery is that there are ten billion options to study. Previously, I had determined that I didn’t want it because those custom intraoccular contact lenses (ICL) or the hard lesnes that you sleep in that correct your vision are safer. However, I realized that I’d be really lame about putting them in and taking them out, so it doesn’t honestly fit with who I am. But the ICL is great – no cornea damage, can easily be corrected if the prescription changes, and the best of all the methods for improving vision. Unfortunately, I found out that the ICL is about $3,000 PER EYE in the U.S. and about $2,000 PER EYE here. So if I want to surgically correct my eyes, then I have to go with the lasik or lasek.
Lasik and lasEk are a huge huge business here. The doctors get their training mostly in the states and you can pretty much trust that you’re in great hands just because they get soooo much practice. The prices are anywhere from $900-2,000 US for BOTH eyes, depending on what your needs/wants are. LasEk is more conservative as it only carves (ablates/ablation) the top of your cornea, but the healing process takes 3-5 days and it takes longer (up to a month) for your vision to normalize. Lasik is pretty painless and has a 1 day recovery time, but it slices a flap on your cornea so you have to have thick enough corneas to do it and with blunt trauma it can rupture. (but the odds of that are like really small unless you are into sports) And (euww) the flap is also visible in the right light. LasEk used to give better results, as the cover (epithelium) over the cornea regenerates but the Lasik flap is more like a lid from then on, and Lasik has been associated with more dry eyes and night vision haloing, but now they have better technology so if (and only if) you are using the latest bladeless (intralase) laser machines, then Lasik is actually the most seamless way (pain, recovery, visual acuity) to go. However, Lasik is also a little more expensive here in Korea. Most Koreans opt for Lasik unless their corneas are too thin, but most of the westerners are opting for LasEk because it is more conservative with cornea material. Some places use the bladeless (intralase) laser machines for LasEk, but have read that the bladed (excimer) laser machines perform equally well.
Another consideration is the machinery being used. Clinics will market their wavefront technology, and/or people on boards will proudly talk about how they opted to pay more for wavefront, but actually it’s pretty much the industry standard now (at least in Korea) and the optician selling you wavefront will call it, “custom.” In my layperson’s estimation it just means that the computer is mapping the topography of your eye and custom adjusting the correction to match. The majority of options will be on the custom end with higher prices, and the few options with an amazingly cheap price will be from older machines which don’t use the wavefront technology. One comparison I found of machines was this spreadsheet. I found it very helpful to look at the equipment being advertised at each clinic to see which place had the best, and in my opinion I used frequency of pulse and speed of tracking as indicators of how accurate the end results would be.
And of course, the most important consideration is the judgement of the ophthalmologist! All the latest technology in the world is no good if the doctor has poor deductive reasoning, little experience, or puts profits above your eye health.
The problem is there are soooo many clinics, it’s hard to choose. So my friend went to four different places and I went to two of them with her.
The first place we went to, rabidly recommended by her colleagues to the point it was an obligation to go there, was Bright Eye Clinic (서울 강남 밝은 안과). It was very well appointed and on the upper end as far as prices went (in the 1.8 million won range even after their400,000 won Christmas special) It was a little disconcerting how assembly-line it was going through all the diagnostic tests, but it turns out that all the places do this, and since most of the measurements are machine-generated and simply recorded by the staff, and since the decisions will be made by the ophthalmologist, then I’m willing (and forced by default) to accept that in the interest of efficiency and lower cost. They told me I was a candidate for either surgery, though they kept pushing the Lasik on both of us. And both of us were increasingly disturbed by how patronizing the optician/sales person was of our leaning towards LasEk and how dismissive she was of any concerns we expressed whenever she pushed Lasik on us, telling us things that directly contradicted everything we’d researched on the difference between the two operations and discounting any of the risks. Later, after comparing their machinery against some other clinics I realized they had one of the latest bladeless lasers (IFS Crystal Plus brand) which they probably paid a pretty penny for, and which they were seeming to push on everyone as it was their premium service for the highest price…While it is true the bladeless is a significant improvement of Lasik, it also seemed irrelevant since we weren’t interested in Lasik. The hard sell left us feeling really alienated and questioning whether they really had our best interests at heart.
And so my friend continued to shop around for another opinion, especially because she was recovering from an eye infection due to scratching of her cornea by contact lenses. She was going to go to a place recommended by a colleague who used to work there, called Our Bright Clinic (밝은우리안과). But she couldn’t line up an appointment with them and I didn’t like how they had a limited selection of laser machines that were a little out-dated, though it sounded like from her colleague’s description the doctor was infinitely experienced and conservative about eye health. So then she went to Bright Hospital who she said had fabulous manners, explained everything really well, and were very forthcoming about everything and conservative about her eye health. She was really blown away by everything about them, but they were also very expensive (2.2 million won) and didn’t have any holiday internet specials. And, if that wasn’t enough mind-warping dilation drops for one week, she also went to Dream Eye Center Gangnam (드림성모안과), well recommended by foreigners for being accommodating to English speakers. It lived up to its reputation, but she felt most confident about Bright Hospital.
So there we were, three high-end eye clinics – one best for Lasik, one excelling at professionalism, and one comforting for foreigners.
After combing through all the expat forums I found one doctor on-line who does lasek for about 1.5 million won for both eyes which, after their Christmas special meant their best LasEk procedure would be 1.1 million won. My friend asked her Korean friends to investigate the place, as charging 500,00o won less than most other places can make one a little curious as to why and how. It turns out that the head doctor got kicked out of a laser eye surgery association because his prices were too low and he was making the rest of them look bad. Anyway, this doctor challenged the association to publish what their operating costs/profit margins were and they didn’t respond. So if you’re an owner of an eye clinic, he’s a villain who’s undercutting your livelihood, but on the other hand, if you’re a blue collar type person, he’s a hero championing vision freedom for the masses. And, there are half a dozen doctors who also feel the same way on staff there. I only found a couple English language reviews of the clinic and they were both very positive, and the equipment they owned was comparable to the expensive clinics, except that he didn’t have the latest bladeless laser machine. But since neither of us really wanted laSik, that wasn’t really of concern to us. Because of the price, we HAD to go check it out. It’s the one we ended up choosing.
Bright St. Mary’s (밝은성모안과)is kind of scary when you walk in because it’s a little shabby and totally packed with clients and you wonder how any place processing so many people can do a good job. But then you remember that everything’s being guided by computers and that of course it’s going to be packed if it’s half a million won less than the other guys. Just like the other places, the diagnostic tests were assembly line and my friend was a little annoyed by one especially robotic staff member. But none of that really mattered because we really felt we were in the best hands when we got to our consultations with the doctor, who spoke really good English.
For instance, he advised my friend to take a DNA test which rules out some genetic eye conditions that would render your laser surgery meaningless if your eyes would just deteriorate anyway after surgery. Only a couple places mention this, and it totally seems to me like all the other doctors who don’t offer this $100 test to people are pretty much preying on those poor folks who have the genetic disease, which seems kind of unconscionable to me. While all the other doctors told her she was a candidate for any operation and they could operate immediately, he was more cautious and wanted to wait until the scarring from her eye scratch and infection was completely healed in order to make an accurate diagnosis.
In my case, the topographic map of my eye revealed an area of the cornea that was considerably weaker/thinner than the rest and he wanted to make sure it was not due to a temporary problem and questioned whether I would really want surgery at all due to my aging eye condition (presbyopia). So he also gave me an eye drops and steroid prescription for two weeks of therapy prior to fully diagnosing my eyes. It turns out that the difference in thicknesses around my cornea were permanent, and he would in no way EVER recommend Lasik to me. Can you imagine if I’d gone to the first place and listened to that saleslady? I could have had a blow-out in my eye flap! However damning the color-coded topographic map of my corneas were, the measurement of the depth of my eye was really encouraging and it was determined that clinically, LasEk would be no problem at all. Technically, the amount of ablation (removal of material) to my cornea for the LasEk procedure would be 0.3 to 0.35 mm and my corneas were 1.8 to 1.9 mm thick. Most Korean women’s corneas are about 1.5 mm thick, so that leaves plenty of room for further correction and a safe cushion over my lenses. He was still concerned that I’d be unhappy because I’d have to wear glasses to read or use the computer, and I had to convince him that I was okay with that.
Anyway, I’m really really happy we got such a conservative doctor, one who will gladly turn a client away if it’s not in their best eye health interest, and it’s just a great bonus that, with the holiday discount and another discount, our operations cost only 900,000 won. That’s $780 dollars U.S. for BOTH eyes! Bright St. Mary’s. Highly recommended…Plus, part of their profits go to UNICEF!
By the way, my friend got her surgery last week and is recovering in the same way we’ve read about from other accounts. I go in next week, and I’ll tel you more about the recovery process a week later. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and not have to grope for my plastic eyes. Life is going to be so beautiful…
ADDED: For the post-op write up, go to Two Less Eyes Continued