COVID 19’s Effect on Healthcare in Japan: Inadequacies, Innovations, and Opportunities

COVID 19’s Effect on Healthcare in Japan: Inadequacies, Innovations, and Opportunities

As we start off 2021, most of us have had the disappointing realization that COVID 19 is still with us and will remain an issue for most of the year. Vaccines offer hope for moving beyond the pandemic and returning to a more normal life, but we’re not quite there, yet.

The COVID 19 pandemic has put a strain on medical care facilities and staff around the world, as well as here in Japan. It has also accelerated growth and innovation in the healthcare industry. This provides new opportunities for administrators with an interest in healthcare. Many of these opportunities can be found in the fields of infectious disease and virtual medical care. Both of these fields are experiencing rapid growth because of the pandemic

Many of these opportunities can be found in the fields of infectious disease and virtual medical care. Both of these fields are experiencing rapid growth because of the pandemic.

A shortage of infectious disease specialists

According to the Research Institute of Economy, Trade, and Industry, Japan has the highest number of hospital beds per capita of any of the G7 countries. Yet it has far fewer doctors and nurses per bed than other countries in this group, such as the United States, Germany, and France. 

Many large hospitals in Japan have experienced a shortage of doctors. This ongoing problem has been further exposed in the last year by the pandemic. Doctors and nurses that had complained of long hours have been pushed to their limits as COVID 19 patients have filled beds in understaffed hospitals. 

In addition to the shortage of doctors in general in Japan, the spread of COVID 19 has revealed the lack of infectious disease specialists. Prior to the pandemic, the demand for these specialists had been relatively low. The demand for oncologists in Japan has been much higher in recent years due to the needs of an aging population affected by a rising cancer rate.

The shortage of infectious disease specialists during the pandemic was not a total surprise. In 2010, the Japan Society of Infectious Diseases (JSID) recommended that Japan have 3,000-4,000 infectious disease specialists. This would allow for the distribution of the specialists around the country so that each of the 1,500 Japanese hospitals with over 300 beds could have at least one such specialist. 

Ten years later, in May 2020, there were just 1,560 certified infectious disease specialists in Japan, which is considerably fewer than the JSID recommendation. In contrast, the United States has 8,000 infectious disease specialists, twice the amount per capita of Japan.

To confront the shortage of these specialists, the Japanese Ministry of Science and Technology last year approved a program to expand training of infectious disease specialists at 40 public, private, and national hospitals in 2021. Though this will do little this year to ease the current burden caused by the shortage of specialists, it will help Japan prepare for future pandemics.

Increasing the number of infectious disease specialists in Japan will not only provide new opportunities for physicians and nurses, but also for professionals who will be needed in a variety of roles in this expanding field.

Growing acceptance of online virtual healthcare

Another healthcare field experiencing rapid growth in Japan this year due to the coronavirus pandemic is online virtual healthcare. 

In 2015, the Japanese government first approved online medical visits as a supplement to face-to-face medical consultations. Patients were required to see their doctor in person before being allowed to have virtual consultations. The technology was slow to spread in the first few years. 

In 2018, the Japanese National Health Insurance system approved payments for online medical care. Still, few insurance payments for virtual medical care were processed before the pandemic. Much has changed in the last year. 

In response to the coronavirus, the Japanese government in April 2020 approved temporarily lifting the restriction on first-time virtual medical consultations. This was seen as one way to limit the spread of the coronavirus by reducing the number of patients going to healthcare facilities in person.

As online medical care became more widespread in 2020, last fall the incoming administration of Prime Minister Suga permanently approved first-time online virtual medical visits.

In the last year, numerous technology companies have entered the online healthcare market in Japan. Several companies are providing similar basic services, as well as a variety of additional service upgrades. Basic online medical services in the apps include online search for clinics using the services, appointment scheduling, online video calls with physicians, and payment.

Virtual healthcare providers in Japan include: 

Line Healthcare’s “Line Doctor” service 

Softbank/Healthcare Technologies Corporation’s “HELPO” service

Amazon Web Services Japan (AWS Japan)

Cisco Webex

These services offer immediate relief for people concerned with making face-to-face visits with a doctor during the pandemic. They will also change the way people interact with their doctors in the future.

The rapid expansion of these new technologies is creating many new career opportunities in this growing field. IT managers, project managers, data analysis managers, and other healthcare technology administrators can expect to find growing demand for their skills in the coming years.

Expanding opportunities in the healthcare field

Even before the pandemic, the job opportunities in the field of healthcare were on the rise due to Japan’s aging population. Other developed nations with similarly aging populations are also expected to experience a dramatic increase in the demand for healthcare professionals. 

In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that job opportunities in all healthcare occupations would grow 15% from 2019 to 2029. This is an impressive number when compared to the projection in the same report of just 4% growth for all other occupations. Even more impressive was the projection that the field of medical and health service managers would grow 32% during that same period. 

With the recent addition of demand for infectious disease specialists and the expansion of online virtual medical care in Japan, the future looks bright for healthcare professionals in Japan.

Article by Joe Nattress

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