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Japan wants its share of medical tourism

Jul 28, 2009

Japan’s government has come up with a not-so-new idea for creating jobs in its healthcare sector: attracting medical tourists. For months, a panel of experts has been meeting at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) behind closed doors to discuss the merits of luring wealthy patients from Asia and Russia to Japan for top-notch medical treatment. When I first heard of the proposal a couple of months ago, the ministry official who told me about it asked that I not write about it yet.

The issue was a sensitive one: In recent years, there have been reports of hospitals turning away thousands of pregnant Japanese women who required emergency services; a few women even died because they didn’t receive the care they needed. Officials worried that it would look like Japan was putting medical tourists above Japanese patients.

Now it seems the ministry is moving ahead with its plans. According to Bloomberg, METI hopes the idea can help transform Japan’s healthcare industry from a money-loser to a profit-maker. (METI wouldn’t immediately confirm the report.) It aims to start a small-scale project from September at 10 of the nation’s largest hospitals. Travel agencies and translation-service companies are expected to participate in the tour packages that will be marketed overseas. METI is expected to spend a few million dollars on a one- to two-year study; the proposal has package tours combining medical checkups with sightseeing trips.

Asia is already a major center for medical tourism. Countries such as India, Singapore and Thailand are a popular destination for Americans, Europeans and Japanese who are looking for specialized medical procedures but don't want to pay the high costs. Japan can't compete on price. After all, a heart procedure that costs $100,000 in the U.S. or Japan can be done for a mere $10,000 to $20,000 at the top private hospitals in Asia.

But Japan thinks there's an opportunity in services like gene analysis that aren't available in less advanced countries. You can probably expect a lot of pampering in the way that only the Japanese have perfected, too.

Tokyo is hoping the idea will boost the finances of the nation's hospitals. Many hospitals that rely on national health insurance payouts from the govenrment are struggling to make ends meet. Currently about 80% of Japan's annual medical costs are paid for by the state.

Japan's national insurance system is hard-up for money, too. With the population graying, the number of workers paying for insurance has dwindled, to the point where the payments no longer cover the annual costs.

So anything would help Japan's medical system at this point. And yet there's no guarantee that the medical-tourism plan will succeed. For one thing, the country has few doctors who are bilingual. It's also unclear how patients from abroad will pay for their medical bills in Japan and whether insurance companies will offer to help out. And before hospitals in Japan offer services they are likely to require some kind of accreditation from Joint Commission International. Typically hospitals that offer services to medical tourists have been approved by JCI, which is part of the same nonprofit organization that accredits American hospitals.

Another hurdle: Japan's shortage of doctors. According to the OECD's Health Data 2009, Japan has fewer doctors per capita than most other major countries. In 2006, Japan had 2.1 doctors per 1,000 people--below the OECD average of 3. (The U.S. per capita figure is also low, at 2.4 doctors.) The scarcity is partly due to the government's annual limits on the number of spots available at the nation's medical schools. To recruit more doctors, particularly outside the largest cities, Japan has already raised the limit and is planning to spend more public money on doctor education and recruitment programs. (How the government plans to reconcile already soaring medical costs and the higher outlays to increase the number of working doctors is unclear.)

Where patients from other parts of Asia might feel a sense of security is in the longevity of Japan's population. Arguably, that attests to the quality of healthcare.

Japan wants its share of medical tourism
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