Medical tourism — a boat to be on


Staff Writer

So-called medical tourism is a growing market worldwide and high-tech Japan hopes to get a piece of the action.

Millions of people worldwide travel abroad seeking high quality or cheaper medical treatment. A 2008 report by McKinsey & Co. forecasts the global medical tourism market to amount to the equivalent of $100 billion in 2012.

Asia in particular is seeing growth, especially in Thailand, Singapore and India.

In recent years the government has also started taking measures to expand the business, including a program started in January 2011 to issue entry visas for people coming to the country for medical treatment. The visas allow travelers entering Japan to receive medical care for up to a six-month stay, or double the period under a regular tourism visas.

Following are some questions and answers about medical tourism in Japan:

How many medical tourists does Japan expect?

No official statistics exist on how many overseas travelers are coming to Japan for medical treatment apart from the number of visas issued for that purpose.

According to the Foreign Ministry, 70 medical tourism visas were issued in 2011, including 31 issued to Chinese and 23 to Russians.

But experts say total arrivals are much greater. Many come on tourist or business visas and get health checkups.

A Japan Tourism Agency survey carried out on 12,066 foreign travelers to Japan in 2011 found 261 of the respondents, or 2 percent, said they received health checks or medical care in Japan during their stay.

“To be honest, we don’t know what the actual volume (of medical travelers) is. . . . In order to understand (Japan’s medical tourism) market, we need to know” such figures, Kazuyoshi Kiyose, a service and health care industry consultant at Nomura Research Institute, told The Japan Times.

Do hospitals have to meet any criteria to take in foreign patients?

No, but the health ministry plans to introduce an accreditation system for medical facilities this summer, aiming to create a more foreigner-friendly medical environment.

Accreditation criteria are expected to include whether a hospital provides documents such as letters of consent in multiple languages, and if it offers multilingual consultations, an official at the health ministry said.

The detailed criteria will be finalized before summer, the official said.

What fields does Japanese medicine excel in?

Aya Miyai, a health care business section chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said Japan has many skilled cancer specialists.

Heavy particle radiotherapy cases in Japan exceed those of other nations, she said.

But because medical care is a service business, it is difficult to accurately compare its level with other countries, Miyai said.

Kiyose of NRI said Japan is advanced in such cutting-edge medical technology as regenerative medicine, whereby damaged or diseased body tissues and organs are repaired or replaced.

What government measures have been taken to boost medical tourism?

Apart from establishing the new visas and the certification system, the government has created websites and issued pamphlets promoting the nation’s top-notch medical services.

METI established Medical Excellence Japan in 2010, a consortium that provides support for overseas patients to receive medical treatment in Japan and also to help expand Japanese medical technologies abroad. Last year, MEJ received over 1,200 inquiries and helped 60 overseas patients, mainly from China and Russia, to get treatment in Japan, according to Miyai of METI. Most received cancer treatment, she said.

The ministry held seminars in Ukraine and Georgia in fiscal 2011 to promote Japan’s medical services, Miyai said.

“The thing is, not many overseas patients know that they can receive medical treatment in Japan. So we plan to wage greater promotional efforts this year,” Miyai said.

Together with Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, METI held a one-year course at the university to nurture medical interpreters in 2011, and 41 people graduated, including 20 specializing in English, 10 in Russian and 11 in Chinese.

METI and the Japan Tourism Agency separately also conducted pilot acceptance programs in 2010, bringing in about 20 to 30 overseas travelers to Japan to undergo checkups or medical treatment at hospitals.

What about the private sector?

Travel agencies have already been promoting the nation’s medical services in a bid to lure wealthy non-Japanese to boost the number of overall overseas travelers to Japan.

JTB Corp., the nation’s largest travel agency, established the Japan Medical & Health Tourism Center in April 2010, specializing in medical tourism.

Tied up with over 10 medical facilities across the nation, including Toranomon Hospital in Tokyo and Kameda Medical Center in Chiba Prefecture, it offers health checks and programs targeting aging, consultations, and other support, including translations.

Packages it sold mainly ranged in price between several hundred thousand yen to over ¥1 million, according to a spokesman at JTB. But the number of customers was too small to keep statistics, he said.

“As of now, most of our customers are relatively wealthy people and over half of them are from China,” the spokesman said.

What’s the potential downside?

The Japan Medical Association and other parties argue that medical tourism will further worsen the existing nationwide shortage in physicians that is particularly severe in rural areas.

Are there other moves afoot to globalize Japan’s medical services?

Kiyose of NRI said METI recently began taking steps to expand Japanese medical services in other countries.

METI conducted pilot programs in fiscal 2011 under which a consortium made up of medical facilities and medical instrument makers sent Japanese doctors and medical equipment abroad, including to China and Russia.

The dispatched doctors diagnosed people at their local hospitals, collaborating with those institutions’ doctors and nurses. If a diagnosed patient cannot be treated in their country of residence, then Japan can offer them treatment here, Kiyose said.

“There is a growing overseas need for Japanese medical services, hospitality and team medical care (using various specialists and equipment), especially in China and Russia,” Kiyose said, adding Japan can promote its medical services by sending them abroad.

Other countries are also strengthening their medical tourism businesses.

A South Korean hospital earlier built a branch in Central Asia and routinely sends its doctors there, Kiyose said.

“The direction Japan should pursue is medical exchanges, such as sending (doctors and equipment) overseas as well as bringing in overseas patients,” Kiyose said.

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