Japan is a “hidden gem” for a medical tourism destination. The country does not only boast high-tech healthcare resulting in one of the best health outcomes, but also prides itself in providing services at low costs. Japan started to accept foreign patients in the last few years and now the several thousand patients from Russia and China are estimated to visit Japan.
Japan enjoys the best health status in the world; the country has the longest life expectancy and the lowest infant mortality rate. It is often misunderstood that the healthy diet is the determinant of the Japanese health status; however, eating sushi is not the only the reason why the average Japanese person lives up to 83 years old. The country’s low-cost and high-quality healthcare service is actually the base of the nation’s longevity. Japan introduced universal health coverage in 1961, promising access to healthcare for every single citizen. Since then, healthcare infrastructure increased rapidly, and it now has 1.5 times more acute hospital beds per capita compared to Germany or to Korea and more MRI machines than any other country. This well-designed infrastructure has contributed to early detection and diagnosis of diseases, thus improving the health status of Japanese people. For example, the five-year survival rate of colorectal cancer is 71 percent in Japan, which is significantly higher than the 48 percent in the United States.
On the other hand, the healthcare costs were controlled carefully by the government through the Unified Fee Schedule, and now just at the average of OECD (developed) countries (9.5 percent per GDP in 2009). Japan’s healthcare expenditure per capita is 30 percent lower than Germany and 63 percent lower than the United States on a purchasing power parity basis .
The good news is that Japan’s healthcare is no longer a myth to foreigners. Some top-level hospitals are opening their doors to foreign patients. The government is promoting their medical services to foreign patients that have medical needs and preparing to certify hospitals that are ready to accept foreigners in a safe and comfortable environment. There are coordinators that have rich experience in supporting foreign patients with various services including visa application, translation, interpretation and logistics.
Japan’s medical treatment has a competitive advantage in several fields. The most globally recognized area is minimally invasive medicine.
For example, Japanese doctors can operate by creating a small surgical wound by using endoscopy, so the patients can recover faster after the surgery, and they will face fewer risks of infection or complication. Japan’s advantage is supported by both skillful doctors and high-technology. Most of the teaching doctors have either studied or practiced overseas. Japanese firms have over 70 percent market share in the endoscopy market.
Besides endoscopic surgery, Japan made major advancement in the field of cancer treatment, especially in proton/heavy ion radiotherapy. Proton/heavy ion radiotherapy can minimize the side-effects of ordinary radio therapy, thus is effective to early stage cancer that was inaccessible by surgery.
Both soft skills and hard technologies are the base of Japan’s advantage in the healthcare services. Since these advanced medicines are commonly practiced in some hospitals, the outcomes are stable and the prices tend to be lower than neighboring countries.
There were three obstacles that have kept foreign patients away from Japan. First is the common belief that Japanese healthcare is extremely expensive. This is not true. Even after considering the appreciated Japanese Yen, Japan’s healthcare cost is almost equal to that of Germany. The second misunderstanding is that it is difficult to obtain a visa to visit Japan. Thanks to the deregulation, the visa application process became faster and easier. There is even a visa specifically designed for medical tourism.
The last myth is that it is impossible to communicate in Japan due to its high language barrier. It may be true that not every Japanese hospital has foreign-language speaking doctors, however, there are well-trained “coordinators/facilitators” that provide language, guiding and hospital matching services. With the aid of the coordinators/facilitators, patients can relax in a suite in a university hospital, order many kinds of ethnic food and plan a post-treatment spa service in the hot spring near Mt. Fuji. Why not consult a Japanese doctor for your next medical vacation?
Source: OECD Health Data 2012
Atsushi Takei is the Deputy of Medical Tourism Promotion Office, Japan Tourism Agency and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, since April 2011.