Health insurers have paid out an estimated ¥9.3 billion in claims for a skin ointment that is increasingly being used by some as a cosmetic beauty treatment, a survey by an industry body has found.
Demand for Hirudoid ointment, normally prescribed to treat atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, spiked after it was touted in magazines and on the internet as a cheap and effective moisturizer.
The huge bill was run up by consumers from 2015 to 2016 even though the public health insurance law only permits coverage for medical prescriptions related to illness and injury, and expenses associated with deaths and childbirths.
With the problem identified, the ministry is studying countermeasures that may include restricting prescriptions of Hirudoid or excluding it from insurance coverage when prescribed alone. Doctors normally recommend it to patients as part of a raft of treatments, ministry officials said.
Hirudoid, considered an “ultimate beauty cream,” normally costs ¥1,185 for 50 grams, a price that drops to about ¥360, or 30 percent of the original cost, when a patient is reimbursed through insurance.
Kenporen, an industry body representing health insurers, investigated receipts linked to standalone prescriptions for Hirudoid and found a big jump among women.
From October 2015 to September 2016, 39,312 prescriptions for Hirudoid were issued to men between 20 and 59, versus 164,377 to women in the same age bracket. Prescriptions to women jumped 17.3 percent from the previous year, versus just 7.9 percent for men.
In many cases, it was found that doctors prescribed Hirudoid to patients who complained of dry skin, which a Kenporen representative said may have become a code word for signaling the ointment would be used for “beauty purposes.”
A 37-year-old housewife in Kawasaki said she learned about Hirudoid after a celebrity blogged about it.
“I got a beauty cream at a hospital cheaply. My skin got smooth as if it were a product from a high-class (cosmetics) maker,” the blog said.
After requesting the cream from her dermatologist, the woman was prescribed five tubes without the doctor even inquiring about her symptoms.
The woman said she was able to save a lot of money because she had been using a beauty cream that costs ¥5,000 per tube.
A dermatologist at a hospital in the city of Osaka said around 10 women request the ointment each month.
“I think there is a moral collapse among the patients. It is extremely problematic to purchase medicine using the medical insurance program for beauty purposes,” the dermatologist said.
“We cannot say no (to a prescription request) when the patient says he or she is having terribly dry skin,” the doctor added.
However, there are concerns that any crackdown may have ramifications for those who genuinely need the cream.
“I am worried that it might become difficult to obtain this medicine,” said a Tokyo woman in her 30s who has been using Hirudoid to treat a skin condition.
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