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Rural Fukuoka doctor now leading global campaign for universal health care

by

Kyodo

Yoshitake Yokokura was a toddler when his father, Kokichi, opened a small clinic in Takata, Fukuoka Prefecture, immediately after World War II.

The village with a population of some 10,000 had no doctor until his father, a former military physician, and his wife, Keiko, set up the clinic. Yokokura, now president of the Japan Medical Association, said in an interview that observing his parents tirelessly treat and help patients inspired him to pursue a health care career.

He related his first-hand experience in his inaugural address as president of the World Medical Association in Chicago in October. He spoke of his desire to spread the concept of Japan’s health care system and know-how throughout the world and proposed working toward a “society of healthy longevity.”

As leader of the 114-nation World Medical Association, Yokokura, 73, is calling for universal health coverage, citing Japan’s example, which has been hailed by the World Bank as a “global model” for such coverage.

Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Spain and South Korea are among countries that provide such coverage, he said. Universal coverage is also among the sustainable development goals, with a target deadline of 2030, of United Nations members.

In an interview in his Japan Medical Association office in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, Yokokura emphasized the need to back up and strengthen regional health care systems in Japan, in which kakaritsuke physicians, or family/community physicians, can play a key role in swiftly and properly treating patients.

When asked about the government’s recent decision to raise medical treatment fees by 0.55 percent in the next fiscal year, Yokokura gave the move 60 points on a scale to 100.

“Actually, we need a 0.8 percent increase” in light of changing expenditures at medical institutions, he said.

As the world body’s top doctor, Yokokura attended its European regional meeting on end-of-life issues at the Vatican in November. The topic is divisive on the continent, with Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands in favor of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and Germany opposed.

After graduating from Kurume University’s School of Medicine in 1969, Yokokura studied at a university hospital in then West Germany from 1977-79. He later succeeded his father as head of Yokokura Hospital in Miyama, Fukuoka Prefecture.

First elected Japan Medical Association president in 2012, Yokokura, a cardiovascular surgeon, is now in his third two-year term as chief of the nation’s powerful medical body, which boasts as members about 170,000 general practitioners and hospital doctors.

The organization has been active in campaigns against smoking, diabetes and lifestyle-related diseases while facing various challenges, including soaring social security spending and the rapid aging of the nation’s population.