More medical schools eyed to combat lack of doctors

Kyodo News

The education ministry will launch studies as early as this fall to allow the establishment of new medical schools to cover a deepening shortage of doctors, in a departure from its three-decade-long policy not to screen any applications for new medical schools, ministry sources said.

The ministry now sees it necessary to lift the ban on establishing new medical schools in areas where demand for medical services is tight, while it still wants to remain highly selective, a top ministry officials said Friday.

The government cut the annual quotas of medical school students in 1982 and 1997, citing a possible excess supply of doctors.

When numbers later came up short, the ministry allowed the country’s medical schools to enroll an all-time high of 8,846 students for fiscal 2010.

Some education experts are worried about a possible deterioration in the quality of training if the quota is boosted further.

The ministry will pick areas for new medical schools after seeing the results of a survey on medical demand currently being conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the sources said.

It plans to launch a consultative body with other ministries and experts to discuss how to maintain quality in clinical, educational and research aspects at such new schools, they said.

The ministry plans to review its policy and university establishment standards as soon as fiscal 2011.

It intends to limit the newcomers to those that already have health-related schools, such as nursing and pharmacy, and meet other conditions to prevent a rush of new schools, as seen in the case of law schools.

The government-run University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa Prefecture was the last to get authorization to establish a medical school in 1979, ministry officials said.

Several private universities are in the planning stages of opening medical schools, even though it takes tens of billions of yen plus a number of medical staff.

One of them is the International University of Health and Welfare, headquartered in Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture. It has schools of health sciences, health and welfare, pharmacy, and nursing and rehabilitation. It runs an affiliated hospital in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.

In February, the university said it was planning to establish a medical school with an annual quota of 125 students, and launched a preliminary committee in March.

Seirei Christopher University in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, which is located in Sapporo and the nearby town of Tobetsu, are also studying establishing medical schools.

The shortage of doctors has hit Chiba, Saitama and Ibaraki prefectures — all near Tokyo — particularly hard.

The municipal government of Narita, Chiba Prefecture, which is planning to invite a university campus, welcomes the ministry’s policy change, a senior official said.

Currently, there are 79 medical schools under the education ministry’s jurisdiction plus the National Defense Medical College, which is under the Defense Ministry. All 47 prefectures have at least one medical school.