Thoughts From a Japanese Doctor’s Surgery

Despite the fact that I’ve been coming to Japan for the past 20 years, this is the first visit in which I’ve had the opportunity to visit both a hospital and a doctor’s (in England, known as GP’s) surgery. And I have to say, sitting in the waiting room of this small countryside practice is making me think a lot about healthcare. Out of interest, I jotted down a few points…

1. Price

Having mainly grown up in England where we have the NHS (National Health Service), it was a huge shock for me to see nurses coming in and asking my relative who was being discharged from hospital, whether they had been given the bill yet. It goes to show how much I’ve taken my own country’s health service for granted, and makes the Government’s desire to privatise the NHS all the more terrifying. The waiting period in the Japanese surgery was noticeably longer, and I was informed that this was the norm. Aesthetically there wasn’t much difference. The hospital had a similar layout to English hospitals, with different departments on different floors, and an outpatients ward. There were communal rooms and private rooms, though I have to say the latter looked more like a business hotel room than any hospital I’ve ever seen. The doctor’s surgery was also pretty similar, apart from the fact that as with most buildings in Japan, you leave your shoes at the entrance and put on the slippers provided.

After waiting just over an hour, I was called through to an open plan nurses’ room, where I was told to sit whilst I had my blood pressure taken. Then, I was ushered into a small cubicle, sectioned off from the next by a curtain. There was only one doctor, so I waited another few minutes for him to finish up with his previous patient. Once he arrived, he listened to my heartbeat with a stethoscope, and asked me a few questions about what my home environment was like. Within 5 minutes he seemed to come to some conclusion, and I was allowed to leave after paying the bill of around £20 at the front desk.

2. Amount of medicine prescribed.

On my way out of the doctor’s surgery, I was asked to go next door to the pharmacy, where I was given four different cough medicines! This was a really big surprise to me, as from my experience in England, you usually only receive one set of medicine unless you suffer from a complex illness.
3. The difference between small doctor’s clinics

In England, families tend to all go to the same surgery, which is generic. Here, you will be seen by a GP (general practitioner) who diagnoses your condition, using their broad knowledge. They will then refer you to a specialist doctor at a local hospital, or prescribe medicine for you if your condition can be easily treated.

However, in Japan, each doctor’s surgery has its own speciality. As you can imagine, this makes choosing the right one to visit very difficult. For example, if you were suffering from a condition where the skin around your eyes was dry and peeling off, would you go to a skin specialist or an eye specialist? You see the dilemma. Of course, the plus side is that if you manage to go the the correct clinic, you are guaranteed to be seen by an expert. I found this difference especially interesting as both systems have obvious advantages and disadvantages.

4. Non-prescription medicine is very expensive.

When I asked my aunt why people bothered going to the doctor’s clinic given that you have to wait so long to be seen, and pay consultancy fees as well as the cost of the prescribed medicine, her answer surprised me. She said that although the prescribed medicine seemed expensive, it would actually cost a lot more to buy the same selection of medicine in a pharmacy or drug store.

5. The nation’s obsession with health

This is another really interesting one. Although the general public in England seem to be giving more and more thought to health, given the rise in vegetarianism and various diets, I would say that Japanese people are noticeably more interested in maintaining good health, and have been for several decades. I have come to this conclusion because of the following points:

  1. Like in many other Asian countries, it is general etiquette in Japan to wear a face mask if you are ill. Walking round Tokyo, I saw so many people wearing them, and realised what an interesting sight it must be for first time visitors.
  2. Although this is a generalisation, people are very quick to rush to the doctor’s clinic as soon as they suspect they might be ill. On the other hand, the English population (especially people of my own generation) seem to put off going to the doctor’s. I am certainly one of those people. I think ‘not wanting to waste the GP’s time with one’s trivial illness’ is a very British emotion! To add to this, if you visit a clinic in England, you will see countless posters asking you not to see a GP if you have a cold, as cold relief medicine can be sold by a pharmacist. In Japan, you are actively encouraged to go and see a medical professional if you are coughing or sneezing.
  3. Similarly, the Japanese population really like their medicine. As mentioned earlier, telling the doctor that I had a cough got me four different types of tablets, and this number frequently increases to 20-30 types for older people!
  4. Whereas the main channels on British television consist of mainly news, sport and nature documentaries, Japanese television is packed full of programmes about obscure vegetables or the health benefits of a particular species of fish. I can only assume that these programmes are broadcast because it is of interest to the general population.

I have found it absolutely fascinating to see the differences in English and Japanese healthcare, and feel so privileged that I have had the opportunity to experience it first hand. I love both countries equally, and hope to share many more musings with you. Until then, much love from Japan!


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