A 34-year-old Chinese doctor is helping a short-staffed hospital in Morioka under a rare project led by the Iwate Prefectural Government, which is responding to a chronic shortage of physicians in the prefecture.

As the central government and lawmakers attempt to secure doctors and nurses in a graying Japan, some experts say the contribution by Gao Song could trigger demand for Japanese-speaking Chinese medics in other hospitals.

“OK, you’re fine, madam. . . . You can take a shower soon,” the soft-spoken Gao assures an inpatient in fluent Japanese after checking the stitches in her stomach.

Gao is a licensed doctor from a hospital affiliated with China Medical University in Shenyang, northeastern China.

He came to the private hospital affiliated with the Iwate Medical University in Morioka in February 2006 under a two-year joint program between the Chinese university and Iwate Prefectural Government. Iwate placed ninth from the bottom among the 47 prefectures in a ranking of the number of doctors per 100,000 residents in 2004.

“He is very caring and easy to talk to in Japanese. I feel at ease,” a 58-year-old inpatient at the hospital’s gynecological section said. Gao helped obstetricians in the hospital until March.

Gao said it is “not a difficult job” to take care of Japanese patients because “concerns among patients over a disease are similar regardless of nationality.”

“I’m busy and I cannot take many days off . . . but I’ve learned much,” he said.

Japanese law limits Gao’s activities as a doctor. The program he is on was initially aimed at providing medical training to non-Japanese.

He is only allowed to assist Japanese doctors in various ways such as by helping in surgery and dealing with patients suffering from acute diseases.

“Dr. Gao can do the job by himself if he follows advice by licensed Japanese doctors. It means Japanese doctors can see more patients than before. Dr. Gao is an important asset here,” said Shuji Kishinami, who heads the university’s Hospital Management Section.

But there are few signs that many other hospitals in Japan will try to follow suit due mainly to language problems and a low-key stance of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on the issue.

According to officials of the hospital and the prefectural government, the ministry appeared to be baffled when first notified of the Iwate project as the training program is not intended to alleviate problems at understaffed hospitals.

The officials said that, to the best of their knowledge, no Japanese medical institutions had used the program to invite foreign doctors as has been done in Morioka.

An official of the ministry’s Health Policy Bureau indicated it has taken a wait-and-see stance on the issue.

Toru Sugiyama, a professor in the hospital’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, urged the central government to take bolder measures to cope with the shortage of doctors and nurses, particularly in regional areas.

“For example, Japan should work with China and South Korea to jointly launch an international license” so doctors can do business more freely among the three countries, Sugiyama said.

“There are many Chinese doctors who are interested in coming to Japan, but it’s very hard to find one who has a good command of Japanese,” said Manabu Kaneta, a section chief of the prefectural government’s Medical Treatment and National Insurance Division.

Experts say demand for Chinese doctors could grow at regional hospitals in Japan, citing “all but inaction” of the state government.

Hiroshi Fukatsu, president of the nonprofit organization Japan Medical Concierge Laboratory, said such demand will grow, “particularly in regions such as Hokkaido and Tohoku.”

Yoichi Abe, chief executive officer of consulting firm Medix Total-Planning Institute Co., said the high income of doctors practicing in Japan is an incentive for Chinese doctors.

Link Staff Co., a Tokyo-based medical staff temporary agency, is gearing up to help Chinese doctors find job opportunities in Japanese hospitals.

President Yasuaki Sugita said seven medical institutes in the Kansai region have formally asked the company to look for Chinese doctors.

“It is important for the graying Japan to bring more qualified professionals such as doctors, instead of simple laborers, from foreign countries,” Sugita said.

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