As medical tourism industry grows, clinics, travel agencies work together

by Mai Iida

Kyodo

A number of hospitals and travel agencies have started promoting medical tourism to cater to a growing demand overseas for the thorough physical examinations and advanced medical treatment perceived as available here.

The move, which also ties into efforts to boost sightseeing in Japan, is backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which has set a target of more than tripling the annual number of foreign visitors to Japan by 2030, partly by encouraging new types of tourism.

Li, a Chinese woman in her 70s who goes by one name, is one of the latest customers in this fledgling market. She underwent a one-day medical checkup that featured a cutting-edge PET (positron emission tomography) scan to detect early-stage cancer at Nishidai Clinic Diagnostic Imaging Center in Tokyo.

The checkup, which also included CT (computed tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans and a brain check, cost her ¥249,000, the same price as Japanese pay. But foreign visitors may find that hiring a coordinating agent and interpreter, which costs from around ¥100,000 to ¥250,000, is necessary in most cases, the clinic said.

Li said she found flying to Japan from Shanghai for the checkup worthwhile and would recommend it to friends back home.

“There may be similar medical equipment in China but I value and trust Japanese doctors’ experience,” said Li, who planned to visit the Hakone hot spring resort near Mount Fuji afterward.

Li also said she was surprised at the Tokyo clinic’s hospitality, noting that the staff kindly took care of her, providing a blanket, for example, when she was cold. “It would be hard to get the same level of service in China because there are many patients there,” she said.

Nishidai Clinic, a pioneer in PET scans here, began accepting customers from abroad in December 2009 and has so far examined about 210 foreigners, mostly wealthy Chinese.

“We have Japan’s top-level checkup system. It should not be monopolized only by Japanese,” said Takaho Watayo, director of the clinic. “Japan is a super-aging society, and the world can learn lessons from its medical services, including checkups,” the doctor said.

Watayo said that accepting visitors from abroad is also a plus because it helps the hospital make better use of its expensive medical equipment, such as the PET scan machines. PET scanners spot cancer by revealing accumulations of an analogue of glucose after a small radioactive amount of it has been injected into the body. An accumulation signals that one might have cancer.

To promote medical tourism, the Japan Tourism Agency began holding workshops with people involved in the medical and tourism industries in July 2009. In January 2011, the government introduced a medical visa that allows foreigners to stay in Japan for up to six months for medical treatment.

The number of tourists entering Japan on medical visas stood at 450 people as of Sept. 30. and is rising.

The government’s goal of raising foreign tourism from just under 8.4 million in 2012 to 10 million in 2013, and over 30 million in 2030, is part of an economic strategy announced in June, and travel agencies are taking advantage of the trend.

Nippon Travel Agency Co. began arranging medical tours for foreign visitors in April 2009, following a request from a hospital that was concerned about its long-term future amid the declining birth rate, said Shiro Aoki, general manager of its medical tourism promotion office.

The agency arranged visits for about 100 customers from China in 2012, compared with about 40 between April and December 2009. The rate slowed, however, after diplomatic tensions rose with China over the Senkaku Islands dispute and the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami ravaged the Tohoku region and set off the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Aoki said inquiries from such countries as Russia, Vietnam and the Philippines are also on the rise, not only for checkups, but also treatment for cancer, leukemia and infertility.

The most popular destinations for medical tours are Kyoto, Hokkaido, the Hakone hot spring resort and Mount Fuji, he said.

In 2009, JTB Corp. began forming an alliance with hospitals to offer interpretation and other services to help foreigners get treatment in Japan. That alliance now involves around 130 hospitals.

Nippon Travel’s Aoki said it is important for Japanese hospitals to better prepare for foreign patients because the expected growth in overseas tourists will likely see more foreigners needing medical attention while staying in Japan.

“The current biggest bottleneck for medical tourism is language, and if the issue is solved, I think it will grow more,” he said, noting the enhancement of medical interpreters is key to success.