Japan has been credited with containing the COVID-19 pandemic, and many observers have questioned how it was done. Explanations have included Japanese lifestyle and customs, such as bowing instead of shaking hands. But one factor that’s been overlooked is Japan’s universal healthcare system, which was established more than 60 years ago.
All 126 million Japanese have equal access to advanced medical care. The country has one of the world’s best-ranked healthcare systems, and one of the longest-lived and healthiest populations. Japan’s resilience in the face of a devastating pandemic is one reason why it’s now exporting its medical and healthcare expertise to other countries.
Japan wants to help other countries enhance their healthcare systems so they can best serve the needs of their people, says Dr. Kondo Tatsuya, CEO of Medical Excellence JAPAN (MEJ), which promotes Japanese healthcare abroad. MEJ works with dozens of organizations in Japan to bring innovation and best practices to bear when fighting complex public health challenges such as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The new digital hospital
The Kitahara group of healthcare organizations is one of MEJ’s members. It operates medical institutions including Kitahara International Hospital in Hachioji City, western Tokyo. Established as a neurosurgery center in 1995, the Kitahara group expanded its services and facilities such as a rehabilitation hospital and a brain checkup clinic, and initiated an emergency medicine project in Cambodia. While the novel coronavirus spread throughout Japan, significantly affecting some medical centers, the Kitahara group’s facilities had no cases of COVID-19. It was able to keep the virus out through strict sanitary measures as well as a cutting-edge security system.
“Even before the first COVID-19 patient in Japan, we were routinely gathering information and taking measures to prevent infections,” says Hamasaki Chika, general manager in the Business Promotion Department of Kitahara Medical Strategies International. “When we accept emergency patients, we conduct our own screening, including thorough interviews and chest scans. By doing this, we managed to identify patients who needed special attention, which was provided in a separate location.”
The Kitahara group and NEC codeveloped the security system, which grants access based on visitors’ biometric information. Not only can it keep unauthorized people out of the hospital, it can prevent dementia patients from leaving when it’s not safe for them. Using facial recognition technology, the system can also detect where staff, visitors and patients have been inside the hospital, facilitating any tracing of infection routes.
“We know who went where, and we can grasp the movement of people in the hospital,” says group spokesperson Kameda Yoshikazu. “Since the system prevents dementia patients from leaving when it’s unsafe, they have minimal restrictions on their movements, which reduces their stress.”
The security system is only one aspect of the what the Kitahara group terms a digital hospital. Staff use virtual reality headsets to help stroke patients in their rehabilitation exercises, as well as virtual travel to help them relax. Using VR headsets, patients have been able to experience virtual travel at a time of real travel restrictions due to the coronavirus. The VR therapy is aiding their rehabilitation, according to Kameda.
Using advanced technology is part of what the Kitahara group calls its Total Life Support service focused on community medicine. Staff go beyond the traditional roles of Japanese hospital workers by offering patients support on everything from dealing with emergencies and rehabilitation to everyday administrative procedures process and knowing their rights.
In an unusual move for a Japanese healthcare provider, the group is exporting this model. It’s bringing its knowhow to Cambodia via its Sunrise Japan Hospital in Phnom Penh, as well as to other countries through training programs and seminars in Japan and overseas. The challenge facing the group is to expand the model within Japan and to grow overseas ties.
“Our Total Life Support approach is unique in Japan,” says Hamasaki. “It’s a package we offer for the resilience of society. Our Hachioji Model is something we want to provide to Southeast Asia and beyond, including the Pacific Rim, Central Asia and the Middle East.”
Globalizing Japanese medicine
The globalization of Japanese medicine and healthcare is the raison d’être of MEJ, a public-private partnership established in 2011 with the help of the Japanese government. MEJ is dedicated to promoting not only Japanese healthcare services and products to the world, but also access to Japanese medicine for people from overseas. Furthermore, it emphasizes the concept of rational medicine, which Dr. Kondo describes as a holistic approach to medicine to serve the best interests of the patient.
MEJ is comprised of 50 member businesses including major Japanese life-science, manufacturing and insurance companies. MEJ also runs the MEJ Forum, an exchange platform for medical entities and associations in Japan that are interested in globalization of their services. It launched Japan Hospital Search, a search engine that directs inbound medical travelers to international hospitals throughout Japan that are accredited by the MEJ.
“Medical care in Japan has had a domestic focus, but we would like it to make an international contribution,” says Dr. Kondo. “We want to provide mutual benefits for both people in and outside Japan, so it’s a win-win situation.”
A graduate of the University of Tokyo, Dr. Kondo worked as a neurosurgeon before becoming chief executive of the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA), the entity responsible for ensuring the safety and effectiveness of drugs and medical devices in Japan. At both the PMDA and MEJ, Dr. Kondo has promoted the concept of healthcare incorporating the many disciplines supporting medicine, including biology, pharmacology and engineering. He believes healthcare should be based on regulatory science, an ethical approach to science and technology to benefit society. His vision for medicine is reflected in the MEJ’s Rational Medicine Initiative, an approach that calls for combining innovations in medicine and healthcare to produce the highest level of patient-centric care.
While promoting inbound medical tourism, MEJ wants to help establish medical centers of excellence in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa. This would be an opportunity for mutual learning and collaboration, and would also ensure that the best practices of Japanese healthcare and the Rational Medicine Initiative are shared with people outside Japan.
“Each country has its unique circumstances. We engage in international cooperation and development with a deep respect for the pride of the people of every country,” says Dr. Kondo. “I was born during wartime, and I believe that instead of advancing through competition, countries should strive for common benefit. This is why the world needs a system like the one we have at MEJ.”
Note: All Japanese names in this article are given in the traditional Japanese order, with surname first.
To learn more about Kitahara International Hospital, click here.
To learn more about Medical Excellence JAPAN, click here.