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The Japanese Healthcare System: Same Crisis, Different Country

Japan is completely different from the United States.  But it’s exactly the same.

I’m talking about health care, of course.

Japan is a country of about 130 million people, and one of the richest countries on Earth.  They enjoy a system of universal health care coverage, and some of the best doctors in the world.  But there are problems.

The country is is straining under the twin burdens of an aging population and rising health care costs.  At some point in the next two decades, retirees will outnumber active workers.   Medical expenses per person have almost doubled since the 1990s and continue to rise.   In a country with little immigration and low birth rates, it’s a bad combination.

The government’s response has been to try to limit what it spends on health care.  To simplify the situation, Japanese have a mandatory co-payment of 30% of all medical expenses, with some types of treatments or diagnostic testing not covered at all.  There is talk that the financial burden on individuals may increase.  It’s one of the reasons that private insurance policies that give cash payments in the event of illness are especially popular in Japan.

In terms of access to care, there have been other issues.  It can be difficult to see a specific doctor at a specific hospital because of well-meaning efforts to keep every doctor busy.  Some doctors and patients have responded by joining private, membership-only clinics where those with the ability to pay can get VIP access to the doctors they want to see.

More generally, Japan has been suffering from shortages of certain specialists, like obstetrics.  It happened because the government miscalculated the need for these specialists over the last couple of decades.  In the last year, there was a major controversy over a case in which a pregnant woman suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance but was turned away by 7 successive hospitals because of the lack of OB support to help her. She was finally taken in by the 8th hospital and died there — the baby survived. There have been other stories like this, raising questions about both the government’s role in picking the right number of doctors to fund in Japanese medical schools and the way in which hospitals treat patients in need of help.

But in each of these areas – and others – the story is very familiar.  The equitable and affordable distribution of health care services is a problem across the globe.  And so the work we do at Best Doctors to help people is just as needed.  When you’re sick, no matter where you are from, you want to feel confident that you are getting the right care.  I think it’s something we are all entitled to have.  The millions of Japanese with access to Best Doctors are a testament to this.

Yesterday, I had the chance to visit with some of the Best Doctors team in Tokyo, executives and clinicians dedicated to helping people get the right care.  They do extraordinary work, and you can see some of them pictured below.  Over the next few days I’ll be seeing some of the most renowned physicians in Japan — not as a patient! — and will share some of their insights on this fascinating country and medical culture.


*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*


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