National / Science & Health | GENERATIONAL CHANGE

Goichiro Toyoda taps technology in bid to save Japan’s health care system

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Goichiro Toyoda, 34, has an impressive resume. A graduate of the prestigious University of Tokyo faculty of medicine, Toyoda worked as a brain surgeon in Tokyo before leaving to become a research scholar at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Toyoda, however, eventually quit what looked to be a perfect medical career path for an elite doctor, hoping instead to work from the outside to make Japan’s health system sustainable and efficient.

“Japan’s current health system cannot be sustained if it continues to be the way it is now,” said Toyoda, co-CEO of Medley Inc., a Tokyo-based medical venture.

The nation’s annual medical expenditures soared to ¥42.1 trillion in fiscal 2016 from ¥33.1 trillion in fiscal 2006, according to the latest data released by the health ministry. Given its rapidly graying population and arrivals of new drugs and technologies that come with hefty price tags, medical costs are almost guaranteed to increase, he said.

But in a country where all citizens are covered by public medical insurance, many take medical services for granted and visit hospitals even with minor symptoms without thinking at all about costs.

Toyoda’s peers share a similar sense of crisis, saying the current system cannot be sustained. But due to their extremely busy workloads dealing with patients day and night, nobody Toyoda knew has been able to take any action, he said.

“I wanted to devote myself to actually doing something about it,” Toyoda said.

After working for over a year as a consultant for the health care industry at McKinsey & Co., he joined Medley in 2015 as co-CEO to expand and develop health-related services via the internet.

Hoping to help raise people’s awareness of health issues — which he believes is crucial to improve and change the country’s health system — he led a project to launch an online medical encyclopedia where people can search for and learn about illnesses they are suffering by typing in symptoms or names of diseases.

All the information is written and edited by medical doctors. To maintain its neutrality, the content is limited to information that most, if not all, medical practitioners agree on.

Today, more than 600 doctors are registered with Medley to help edit the encyclopedia, and the website offers information on about 1,400 illnesses, 30,000 drugs and 160,000 medical facilities.

“I wanted to create (an online encyclopedia) that people can trust and get medically accurate information,” Toyoda said. “It is like Wikipedia, but one created by medical doctors for patients.”

When people are diagnosed with an illness, many search for information online to gain knowledge about the disease and find out what treatment they need. But there are hardly any websites in Japanese that provide accurate and up-to-date information that nonmedical experts can comprehend, Toyoda said.

What’s worse, the internet is also awash with bogus health information, such as that seen in the plagiarism scandal that hit DeNA Co.’s health care information website Welq in 2016.

“There are many patients who get depressed and confused after scrolling through so many pages and sites on the internet,” Toyoda said. “I wanted to create a website that patients can visit whenever they get confused.”

According to the firm, between several million to tens of millions of people visit the site every month, and it gets feedback from users every day. Many visitors say the information helped them make necessary choices about whether or not to undergo an operation. Others said the site deepened their understanding about illnesses they are suffering.

“Many think it’s hard to understand medical information. But I want people to realize it’s not that hard. They can learn about an illness by reading (what’s contained in the encyclopedia),” Toyoda said.

What Toyoda and Medley aim to do is the realization of medical treatments that patients and their families can be satisfied with. “To be able to satisfy, I believe they need to have knowledge (of the illness they are suffering), and, together with a doctor, they need to make their own choices such as whether or not to undergo an operation,” Toyoda said.

Apart from the encyclopedia, the firm also launched a telemedicine platform called Clinics, which enables patients to consult doctors via video and pay fees with credit cards. Since its launch in February 2016, more than 800 medical institutions have introduced the app-based service, according to the firm.

Many people who need to visit doctors regularly in order to keep treating chronic illnesses stop going to hospitals, as it often requires them to take a half day or even a full day off work. But by using the telemedicine service, it is much more convenient for such people to get the treatment they need, he said.

For its latest service, Medley is developing a system for electronic medical records. Toyoda said he eventually wants to launch a service which enables patients to see their own medical histories with an app.

“In Japan, a patient’s medical record is managed separately by each medical institution. I think it’s absurd that patients do not have access to their own medical records,” Toyoda said. “That, I think, is leading to insufficiencies in the health system.”

The creation of a system in which all medical records of one patient are shared among hospitals and the patient could eliminate unnecessary examinations, such as patients taking a CT scan every time they visit a different hospital for the same illness, he said.

“I want to expand health services using the internet. An increase in such services will serve to raise people’s health literacy or their interest in Japan’s medical system,” Toyoda said. “And, I believe, that will make it easier to launch new health services that are necessary (to change the shape of Japan’s health system).”

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.