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BASIC HEALTH CHECH

Simple tests fill health-check gaps

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Although health checkups are often mandatory for corporate or institutional employees, some segments of society, including housewives and the self-employed, may not have this option.

In a country where cancer is rife but screening rates are hovering between 20 and 30 percent, according to the National Cancer Center, it’s still considered bothersome to book a half-day checkup at a hospital.

To make life easier, a wide range of simplified health examination kits designed to detect diseases including diabetes, cancer and even HIV/AIDS, are cropping up. It is hoped the simplified exams will boost screening rates and thus early detection and more timely recuperation.

Following are questions and answers about the tests:

How do the simplified checkups differ from the ones offered at companies and health care centers?

They come in several forms, including postal kits that allow people to do the test at home and mail the data and materials out for analysis, and those that can be performed at your local pharmacy.

Pharmacies are offering individual kits that can check your blood for glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), an effective way to test for diabetes. The tests are either free or cheaper than those offered by hospitals, and cost less than ¥10,000. No health insurance card is needed.

Other kits can be used to do blood tests at home, as long as you are willing to prick your own fingertip. They also come with containers for urine or feces samples.

Where can I get a simple HbA1c test done?

There are 10 pharmacies in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, offering the test as part of a joint project involving Tsukuba University, the nonprofit Adachi Diabetes Mellitus Society and the Adachi Ward Pharmacist Association.

Ten more are offering it in Tokushima as a project between Tsukuba University and Tokushima Bunri University on Shikoku.

The tests are free because they are covered by research grants from Naoya Yahagi, an associate professor at Tsukuba University’s faculty of medicine who is leading the project.

The tests take just six minutes. By law, pharmacists cannot administer them because doctors aren’t present. But the customers can do it themselves by pricking their own fingers to extract a blood sample for testing. If the results indicate a problem, the patient is advised to undergo more thorough testing at a hospital.

How many people have taken the easy HbA1c test so far?

The tests in Adachi Ward have been available since October 2010 and drawn 1,500 people, said Akiko Nagai, a pharmacist at Ayase Pharmacy who also serves on the board of the Adachi Ward Pharmacist Association.

Who is asking for them?

Nagai said many opting for the simple tests are self-employed people and housewives, especially those with small children who find it hard to get out of the house.

Others include people who aren’t comfortable with company-sponsored checks or do not like going to hospitals because of the high screening fees, long waiting hours or other reasons, she said.

What is a “one-coin checkup?”

A company called Carepro started offering an easy, ¥500 per item checkup in 2008. The tests check your blood sugar, glycated hemoglobin, neutral fat, liver functions and other conditions.

Customers select only the items they want checked, and each test takes about 10 minutes.

What home tests are there for lifestyle-related diseases, including cancer?

Kochi Prefecture-based Irimajiri Create Co. offers the Demecal blood test kit, which can be ordered online. The test can be performed at home and the sample sent by parcel post to the firm’s test center for analysis.

Customers can opt to have the results sent by email about three to five days after sending in their samples, or by regular mail.

How does the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry feel about the simplified tests?

According to Hiroyuki Noda of the cancer control and health promotion division, the easy checkups still “won’t take the place of actual health checkups,” because there are doubts about their quality and credibility.

He also said the health ministry does not actively promote them, although they seem to be raising public interest.

“On the other hand, it’s a good thing that many different initiatives are being carried out to promote one’s health, and as a result, each individual becomes more and more conscious about health,” he said.

What benefits do they offer?

“For example, diabetes often has no subjective symptoms, so it’s a very effective way of finding out whether one has the disease or not. Taking the test can also lead to discovering other diseases,” said pharmacist Nagai, who noted that an HbA1c test might come up negative for diabetes but reveal a blood pressure or lipid abnormality instead.

How does the future look for simplified health checks?

“I believe easy checkups with blood taken from the fingertip or part of the palm will expand in the future, and they should,” said Yahagi of Tsukuba University.

“If lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes become something that relates to each one of us — and are not thought of as someone else’s problem, then it will definitely lead to early prediction, and consequently the number of people taking the tests will rise,” he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp