National

Interest in mountain medicine growing in Japan amid trekking boom, surge in accidents

by Hiroshi Sazanami

Kyodo

Japan has seen an increasing number of mountaineering accidents amid the boom in alpine trekking, with many victims in their 50s and 60s.

This in turn has led to increasing demand for doctors with expertise in mountain medicine, prompting some doctors to obtain an international diploma in the field that was introduced in Japan in 2010.

In early July, Dr. Kazue Oshiro, 50, was examining a 73-year-old man with angina at Hokkaido Ohno Memorial Hospital in Sapporo.

“There will be no problem if you climb slowly,” Oshiro advised her patient, who was planning to go mountain climbing, based on a detailed analysis of his heart data taken through an exercise test.

“Other doctors wouldn’t tell me these things. The advice is encouraging because I want to continue climbing,” the man said.

Hailing from Nagano Prefectue, which hosts nine of the 12 tallest peaks in Japan, Oshiro traveled around the world to climb mountains when she was in her 40s.

She decided to pursue mountain medicine after she found herself unable to treat a person with altitude sickness whom she encountered when she was climbing in Nepal.

The experience led her to study the subject in Britain. In 2010, she became the first Japanese to obtain an international diploma in mountain medicine.

In 2013, Oshiro served as the team doctor when famed alpinist and professional skier Yuichiro Miura climbed Mount Everest at age 80.

International certification in mountain medicine began in Europe in 1997. The diploma has established minimal requirements for courses in mountain medicine for the education of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. It is an internationally recognized course certifying that the participant has undergone rigorous training and testing.

In Japan, the diploma became obtainable in 2010. Eligible for the certification are doctors who have finished specified programs, including the essentials of caring for patients in the technical mountain environment and mastery of mountaineering skills as well as lectures on basic mountain medicine.

In Japan, there were 35 certified mountain doctors as of the end of July. The number of doctors interested in obtaining the diploma has been increasing every year.

The move gathered momentum amid the uptick of mountaineering accidents in Japan. In 2015, the number of such accidents hit an all-time high of 2,508 and remained almost unchanged at 2,495 in 2016, showing a sharp increase from 1,417 recorded in 2006.

In 2016, 319 climbers died or disappeared on mountains, up 23 percent from 10 years earlier, the National Police Agency said, adding those aged 60 or older accounted for about 70 percent of the total.

Mountain doctors give various tips to climbers, including how to prevent hypothermia and how to climb safely. They are also involved in running clinics set up on mountains such as Mount Fuji and those in the Northern Alps.

“People tend to see mountain medicine as experience-oriented treatment. But what is important is that it should be backed by science-based analysis. For that purpose, proper education is necessary,” Oshiro said.

She tours the country to deliver lectures on safe climbing and compiles brochures on the topic for high school students.

Last year, Japan designated Aug. 11 as Mountain Day, a national holiday.

With the climbing boom showing no signs of abating, the National Police Agency has spoken out on accidents, citing inappropriate decision-making on weather conditions, lack of proper climbing gear and impractical climbing schedules as primary factors behind mishaps.

Chiaki Aoyama, a Kansai University professor emeritus specializing in alpine accidents, said it is difficult for doctors to acquire expertise in mountain medicine while in Japan because there are less opportunities for actual treatment compared with Europe or the United States.

“We should foster mountain doctors with higher treatment skills by offering more practical training,” said Aoyama, who is also a member of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation.