Healthcare in Japan, part two – how it works (for me at least)

I tried to write this a few days ago, but it ended up being a ramble on medicines. Medicines are important, but there is a whole lot more to the story.

As someone with limited Japanese proficiency, seeing doctors here has been a steep learning curve. It has pushed me to be more informed and aware of my body and what I need. I have had fantastic experiences, and I have had awful ones. I have found I need to push harder than I may back home. I have learned is to trust my gut.

At Christmas time, when I had a nasty ear infection and was meant to fly. Tunnels hurt. Riding in a car hurt (literally felt like going down in an aeroplane every time we turned a corner). I was having to chew gum on my breaks at work to relieve pressure (with my co-teacher’s blessing). But I went to both my family doctor, who didn’t even check my ear but told me I was fine. I went to an ENT specialist who glanced at the outside of my eardrum and told me I had some inflammation but would be fine. I didn’t feel fine, but I packed my bag, not wanting to miss the chance to see my fiance.

My gut still kept telling me there was something wrong. It didn’t feel right. I knew I shouldn’t fly. The day of my flight I found out about an ENT I could likely see before I needed to leave for the airport. I boarded the train toward town. There is a tunnel between my station and the centre of the city. The pain going through the tunnel was horrendous. The “pop” my ears had after going through was worse than anything I had experienced flying. The last thing I could imagine was descent from a real, actual plane if a tunnel was causing me that much agony. The new ENT ran a number of tests.  He detected a problem with pressure in my inner and advised me not to fly. This is after having been told twice that I was safe to fly.

This is not the only time I have had this happen. I can think of two other occasions where I was told I was fine and needed further treatment when I found someone else, or was misdiagnosed.

Having Japanese health insurance gives you access to very affordable care. Japanese people see the doctor very frequently. I can see any doctor I wish. Appointments are not usually necessary, and a wide range of services are covered, for example dental and medical massage. I find it difficult to criticise the system as a whole, as Japanese people have great health outcomes (especially considering the rates of smoking), and care is so affordable and accessible.  And I have received some truly excellent care. My current specialist is amazing. He understands completely, gives me excellent treatment, and used to be a researcher for Yale into the specific type of medicines I am on. I do take a bus and 6-7 trains to be able to see him though (work – doctor – home).

I guess my biggest advice to anyone trying to figure it out for the first time is to be aware of your choices. Most big cities have English-speaking doctors. If it’s something that there is a speciality in, go to that specialist, even if you may not back home. Ask around (and google) and you can get recommendations. Don’t be afraid to get second and third opinions, and change doctor if you are not happy. Great care is available and accessible for an English speaker in or near a major Japanese city, but sometimes it takes a bit of searching. (I can’t comment on more inaka places, as I don’t have the experience).



Posted on March 13, 2013, in Japan. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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