FUKUSHIMA – Around 70 percent of medical institutions near the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station are operating in the red after restarting services, due to lower patient numbers and mounting labor costs.
The number of patients per day at Tomioka Chuo Iin, a clinic in the town of Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture, has declined to about one-tenth the level seen before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a meltdown at the nuclear power plant owned and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.
An evacuation order was lifted for many areas in the town in April last year.
“We can’t continue without financial assistance,” said Akira Isaka, the 78-year-old head of the clinic.
According to the Fukushima Prefectural Government, about 100 medical institutions in 12 municipalities were operating around the nuclear power station before the accident, but the figure had fallen to 31 as of the end of last month.
In areas where the evacuation order was lifted, “we need to look at supply and demand when preparing medical services,” Isaka said.
Local residents are hoping for services will improve, according to surveys by the Reconstruction Agency and local governments.
With multiple answers allowed, the share of households that cited better medical services as an important component of daily life stood at 68.5 percent in Tomioka and 78.7 percent in Namie, another Fukushima town close to the nuclear plant.
Many evacuees say they plan to make decisions on whether to return to their hometowns by taking into account, among other things, whether medical and nursing care services have resumed and if satisfactory levels of services are available.
But some 70 percent of medical institutions that have resumed services are accepting financial assistance as they are unable to make ends meet by themselves.
An outflow of medical workers, caused by the evacuation after the nuclear disaster, has made it difficult for hospitals and clinics to secure employees unless they offer good salaries and working conditions. They have also been hit by decreases in patient numbers, resulting in high vacancy rates — which affects their income — even in areas where the evacuation order has been lifted.
Because there are many elderly residents in these areas, the need for home health care and rehabilitation is expected to increase.
“A big challenge is who will take care of elderly people,” Isaka said. Previously, younger generations cooperated to look after elderly people in their communities, but the situation has changed now, he said.
The Fukushima Prefectural Government has set up a 24-hour emergency hospital in Tomioka, while continuing financial and other assistance for existing medical institutions near the nuclear plant.
“We’ve projected that there won’t be many patients, and how to help local medical institutions stabilize their operations is a hurdle we need to clear,” a Fukushima official said. There are also plans to work with a public-private team that is seeking to help businesses affected by the 3/11 disasters get back on their feet, the official said.