Rx for sick tourists: Add medical interpreters


When visitors to Japan fall ill, finding a doctor who can communicate with them in their mother tongue can be a difficult task.

Medical professionals, interpreters and local government officials addressed the problem at a symposium in Tokyo on May 31.

Building a network of medical institutions, pharmacies and interpreters is urgently needed as the number of foreign travelers here is on the rise, said Toshimasa Nishiyama, professor in charge of the foreign patients section at Kansai Medical University in Osaka Prefecture.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, foreign visitors numbered 8.3 million last year, up from 5.2 million in 2003. The ministry hopes the figure rises to 10 million by 2010.

However, there are few medical institutions willing to accept foreign patients, said Nishiyama, who heads the organizing committee for the symposium, comprising mainly doctors, pharmacists, and the Japan Association for Public Service Interpreting and Translation.

“The language barrier is one obstacle,” he said, noting that medical institutions also worry about whether foreign patients are insured.

To overcome the language barrier, some hospitals use medical interpreters.

Rinku General Medical Center in Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, located near Kansai International Airport, has provided medical interpreters who speak Chinese, English, Portuguese and Spanish since the hospital opened an international clinic in April 2006.

About 320 foreign patients used the free interpretation service during the first two years, said Dr. Kaori Minamitani, who works at the international clinic.

In one case involving an African patient with a serious disease, a doctor at the clinic first tried to explain the symptoms, a medical treatment plan and its risks in highly technical English. But a medical interpreter was needed to translate what the doctor said into plain English to persuade the patient to accept the care needed, Minamitani said.

Medical interpreters help doctors better communicate with foreign patients, who have different conventions of medical service and views on life and death, she said.

Despite the growing demand for medical interpreters, they are usually paid only a few thousand yen per case, according to industry experts.

For example, the Kyoto City International Foundation, which offers interpreter services to foreign residents in Kyoto, pays medical interpreters ¥1,000 an hour plus another ¥1,000 for transportation. The costs are covered by the Kyoto Municipal Government and hospitals that call the interpreters.

Currently about 30 medical interpreters registered at the foundation handle roughly 1,500 cases annually, she said.

If the rewards are higher, medical interpretation could be established as an occupation, said Atsuko Okamura, an official at the foundation.

The organizing committee hopes to continue discussing ways to build the network to improve medical services for foreigners, Nishiyama of Kansai Medical University said.

“Personally, I think we should soon launch pilot networks linking doctors, pharmacies and medical interpreters in Tokyo and the Osaka-Kyoto region, which have many foreign tourists,” he said.