A trip to the doctor in Japan

By Motoko Kakubayashi 02/04/2012

Following a visit to my tenth doctor since moving to Tokyo, I think I have seen enough to give an insight into how different it is from seeing a doctor in New Zealand.

To get an idea about my medical past, firstly, I was born in New Zealand.  A Plunket nurse came to check up on me when I was a baby, the immunisation nurses pricked my arm when I was at intermediate, and then at university the nurses told me about the things I could catch as an adult if I wasn’t careful.  But for most of the 25 years I spent around the lower North Island I went to one doctor, a GP who lived about 15 minutes from my house in Palmy.

I’ve been living in Tokyo for two years now, and yesterday I went to see my tenth doctor.

The biggest reason for the high number is because there are a large number of different specialists and clinics which have helped me in various situations.  A dermatologist down the street had helped me on a number of occasions when my skin reacted badly to products using chemicals I’d never come across in New Zealand.  On other occasions the physicians in a clinic which was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, had made it easier for me to get a check up at 7am before going to work (or not).  More recently I have found a women’s-only clinic which is open in the weekends and until late at night.

But with such a large number of doctors and hospitals, it has also been a challenge to find the right doctor for me.  The doctors I have stuck with talk to me.  They ask me how my day has been going, remember I’m from New Zealand, explain what they’re doing, even draw diagrams, and tell me why they’re prescribing me with drugs.  The doctors I have stayed away from have treated me like a check list, they’ve asked me a series of closed questions about my symptoms, taken a quick look, and finally written out a prescription.  In these cases I’ve been in and out of their offices within five minutes.

I don’t think these doctors had acted mean on purpose, or I hope so, but I do think it has something to do with the country’s health care system.  For doctors, their income is partially determined by the number of tests they run and prescriptions they make, which could possibly explain why some doctors I’ve seen work like machines, examining as many patients as they can.  For the people seeing doctors, health care makes it cheap, but it also means there are large numbers of people waiting to see a doctor for small things.

This has been a problem for ambulance services, who have been flooded by a growing number of calls over the years.  According to Japan’s national public broadcaster NHK, there were 480,000 ambulance calls last year, and one third of these couldn’t be answered.  To try and lower these numbers, the Tokyo Fire Deparment launched a website yesterday which is a guide to help people decide whether they need to call an ambulance when they are unsure.

Of course, it’s important to understand I’m only talking about Tokyo, where a large bulk number of doctors like to stay.  The situation out in rural areas is much the same as in New Zealand where doctor numbers are declining.

As for my own medical needs, I’ve slowly been able to build up a list of doctors I get along with who work at clinics or hospitals within 10 minutes of my apartment.  But I know that if I move, I’m going to have to go through my doctor audition process all over again.

0 Responses to “A trip to the doctor in Japan”

  • Thanks for the great article. Comparisons between different countries are fun, esp. if who like travel “and all that”. (I do.)

    It’s interesting you mention that they take time to talk to patients as in other settings some people are suggesting it’s an issue with the Western medical system and it’s not what Westerners might stereotype as expected from a Japanese medical system.