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Calls for hospitals to install free Wi-Fi connection systems are growing in Japan, with the coronavirus pandemic having led to restrictions on visits to patients by family members and friends.

Shinsuke Kasai, a freelance television announcer, was hospitalized for treatment of malignant lymphoma for four and a half months from December 2019. From early 2020, his family and friends were unable to visit him due to restrictions imposed following the spread of COVID-19. “I felt extremely lonely,” he said.

Kasai, 58, communicated with them online and eased his loneliness by posting messages and watching videos on social media sites. “I never thought that advances in IT would give me so much relief,” he recalled.

But as the use of Wi-Fi was banned in his hospital room, Kasai relied on data communication provided by his smartphone service company for monthly usage fees of ¥8,000 to ¥10,000. He felt financially burdened because of the fee payment on top of his hospital expenses.

A civil group, set up in January by Kasai and other people to urge hospitals to install free Wi-Fi systems, took the initiative in conducting a survey of some 600 people with experience of hospitalization, finding that 40% of them had experienced an absence of access to the internet while hospitalized. Others said they had paid higher mobile phone charges or worried about the amount of data they could use.

In addition, only 21% of 563 hospitals surveyed by the group between June and August, including major cancer treatment hospitals, pediatric cancer hospitals and hospitals under the National Hospital Organization, had introduced free Wi-Fi systems. The survey also found that Wi-Fi cannot be used “at all” at 46% of them.

By prefecture, Wi-Fi systems have been installed at more than 50% of surveyed hospitals in Iwate, Yamagata and Ehime, but at none in Miyagi, Akita, Toyama, Yamanashi, Shiga, Hiroshima and Kochi.

Many hospitals are reluctant to introduce Wi-Fi technology not only due to the cost burden but also for fear that medical equipment and electronic health record systems might be affected by radio wave interference. Such interference is rare, however, because medical equipment is shielded from it.

In April, therefore, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare added the installation of Wi-Fi systems for use by patients at hospitals to its subsidy program as part of measures to address the coronavirus crisis. Although the ministry stopped accepting applications in September, it is considering a resumption of the subsidy program.

“The isolation and loneliness of patients is a new social problem amid the COVID-19 pandemic” Kasai said. “I do hope hospitals will consider introducing access to the internet because it is a lifeline for patients in hospital rooms.”

The Kasai-led group lists the names of hospitals where the use of free Wi-Fi systems is available on its website.

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