Japan adopts steps to support hospitals in treating foreign tourists

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

A government working group adopted a set of policy measures Thursday to support hospitals dealing with a surging number of foreign visitors to Japan, including recommending the purchase of travel insurance in advance and establishing assistance for hospital staff using medical translation services.

The government also plans to stop admitting foreign nationals who have a record of failing to pay high value medical expenses for treatment they received at hospitals in Japan.

In recent years some foreign tourists, in particular those from developing countries, have found it difficult to pay medical fees here as they did not have insurance coverage during their stay. In many such cases emergency hospitals suffered financial losses, experts say.

“The number of foreign tourists to Japan is rapidly increasing,” said Hiroto Izumi, a special advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the head of the working group. “Based on policy measures proposed today, we’d like to make preparations and quickly take action.”

The number of foreign visitors has more than quadrupled, from 6.79 million in 2009 to 28.69 million in 2017, partly thanks to the easing of tourist visa conditions for many countries, including China, Thailand, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

On top of that, the government aims to boost the figure to 40 million in 2020 and to 60 million in 2030 — three times the 2015 level.

“Multilingual staffers are not necessarily available 24 hours a day even at hospitals that accept foreign tourists. We are facing language problems,” said Kazuo Yamada, an official in charge of inbound tourism at the Japan National Association of Travel Agents during Thursday’s session of the working group.

Medical interpreting or translation for patients with serious diseases requires more advanced skills than those of a general translator at a hotel, for example. This also often poses problems, he said.

Hospitals and local governments have urged politicians to hammer out measures to help them deal with a surging number of foreign tourists, since the state has been aggressively promoting inbound tourism as a growth strategy in recent years.

According to a questionnaire conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency at three major airports from December to January, 27 percent of 3,383 non-Japanese respondents who stayed in the country were not covered by any health insurance policy during their trip.

Experts say most financial issues involving foreign patients and hospitals can be resolved only if travelers have travel insurance with a certain guaranteed coverage.

A vast number of foreign patients suffer only minor sickness or injuries, they also say.

The policy measures adopted Thursday are based on proposals compiled on April 27 by a project team of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The financial amount to be allocated for each measure has yet to be disclosed.

The policy measures adopted by the government include:

  • Creation of prefectural-level liaison bodies between hospitals, local governments, hotels and other tourism-related establishments
  • Creation of a one-stop consultation body for hospitals and other related parties
  • Publication of more information on hospitals with multilingual staff that can accept foreign patients
  • Distribution of tablet computers that can translate words and phrases in order to communicate with foreign patients
  • Guidelines for medical institutions calculating fees for foreign patients not covered by any insurance policy
  • Publication of manuals for hospitals and local governments to deal with issues involving foreign tourists
  • Training of medical translators and coordinators who are familiar with the customs and insurance systems of other countries