FUKUOKA – Japan’s correctional facilities have had trouble securing enough doctors to examine inmates, as medical students tend to favor working at private-sector hospitals that pay more and offer better opportunities to learn about advanced medical technology.
The Justice Ministry, which oversees the medical officers at prisons and juvenile reformatories, is making efforts to attract more students to the job, including legislation to improve the working conditions at penal institutions.
Reflecting the aging population itself, nearly 70 percent of inmates are elderly and affected by diseases, according to the ministry.
While the ministry would like to assign 328 medical officers to 156 correctional facilities, it now has only 263.
“We run short of doctors who work at correctional facilities,” a ministry official told students gathering at a seminar held in the city of Fukuoka in October by medical institutes that host trainees.
Since medical officers are required to be familiar with various ailments, the ministry seeks experienced doctors in principal. But amid the staffing problems of recent years, it has begun to participate in such seminars to directly reach out to students.
“Based on a long-term perspective, we felt the need to let students know they can choose a job like this,” said an official of the ministry, which also last year began taking Saga University students on a tour of a juvenile prison in Saga Prefecture.
Around 60 students stopped by the ministry’s booth at the Fukuoka seminar, with some showing interest in touring correctional facilities, the official said.
At correctional facilities that lack medical officers, inmates in critical condition must be moved to hospitals, a costly operation requiring three prison officers to accompany a single patient, said Kazumasa Akaike, a professor of criminal law at Ryukoku University.
Annual incomes for medical officers are around 30 percent less than those of doctors in the private sector, although they do amount to more than ¥10 million, according to Akaike and other experts.
But pay is not the only problem.
Isao Muraji, a division chief of the ministry’s regional corrections office, said that fewer opportunities for research and study may lead students and doctors to believe they cannot improve their skills by working at correctional facilities.
A 40-year-old woman who decided to quit her job as a medical officer said, “It was hard to study something new because I had fewer opportunities to increase my knowledge of various cases or experience advanced medical technology.”
A law designed to address such problems took effect last year. It allows medical officers to work part-time at private hospitals in an attempt to narrow the income gap, while also enabling flexible work hours, which the ministry says will help to secure time for research.
The official involved in the Fukuoka seminar said the flextime system benefits medial officers raising a child.
The ministry also produces DVDs to promote the job of medical officers among students.