Founded 350 years ago, Kameda Medical Center is a family-run hospital located in Kamogawa City, Prefecture of Chiba in the Japan east cost. Kameda is one of the few hospitals in Japan receiving international patients. But it is only three years ago that John Wocher, Kameda’s Director and Vice President, started considering medical tourism as a niche market.
Kameda includes 31 operational departments however, the hospital’s specialties revolve around spinal surgeries, breast procedures, cardiology, oncology and cardio-vascular surgery.
Offering first class services, Kameda has been ranked as one of the best hospitals in Japan in a 2005 Nikkei Shimbun survey. It is also the only Joint Commission International accredited hospital in Japan. “The global standards are very strict,” John Wocher, Director and Vice President of Kameda Medical Center says, “we took a year to prepare for JCI credentialing.”
Wocher explains that Kameda has been accredited in 2009 largely to enhance the hospital’s reputation and improve overall patients’ safety. “Our primary goal was not for marketing purposes, or chasing after a niche in medical tourism,” Wocher says, “but we do receive international patients.”
According to Wocher, Kameda first received foreign patients six years ago, “before medical tourism became a buzz word.” Situated near a military basis, military families were coming to Kameda to receive health care. And the first step was made into the medical tourism industry. “Last year, we received around 720 foreign patients,” Wocher says. “But only 50 were inbound patients.”
According to Wocher 65 to 75 percent of the foreign patients are coming to Kameda for check-ups or oncology purposes. Checkups can last one night to two days and cost average around U.S $4,000 inclusive of a private room and a variety of tests such as a coloscopy and PET CT scans.
Expatriates and military families are more likely to come to Kameda than foreign patients coming intentionally and specifically for medical tourism. However the low number of medical travelers at Kameda is not an isolated case, Japan is not a top choice destination when it comes to medical tourism.
“There is not a lot of information on Japan’s healthcare system,” Wocher complains.
According to him, the government should take medical tourism more seriously, as it’s becoming a niche market in other countries.
“The government is not very supportive,” Wocher says, qualifying the Ministry of Health “not very enthusiastic about it or may be allergic to foreign patients.”
Wocher takes the example of South Korea which has offices in New-York and Los Angeles promoting medical tourism as well as a medical tourism board. “Foreign patients can get a medical visa in 24 hours,” he says. “In Japan, we don’t even have a medical visa category.”
Also, JCI accreditation is not well known in Japan and most of the Japanese hospitals are locally accredited. According to Wocher, the local accreditation process is very easy.
“Hospitals in Japan are reluctant about JCI accreditation,” Wocher says, “the process is intimidating and most of the hospitals are not able to afford the JCI out-of-pocket costs for credentialing.”
Motivation is lacking in Japan when it comes to international expansion for the country’s health care plans.
For instance, medical records are written in Japanese while in the medical tourism industry insurers and facilitators ask for medical records in the English language. According to Wocher, Japan is unlike “Singapore and India for example who have their medical records in English.” The opposite is true; most Japanese hospitals don’t have a bilingual staff and cannot read English medical records.
“U.S Insurers are tough, they have unreasonable expectations,” Wocher says. However, culture wise, the country as a whole is reluctant and there are lots of disincentives. According to Wocher, there is a strong corporate culture of domesticity in Japan. Embedded by the law, foreign doctors are not allowed to practice unless they take and pass the Japan national examination for medical practitioners.
But, the problem doesn’t come from the medical industry only; Japan is a country where the Japanese language, the Japanese culture and the Japanese themselves are the most important factors,overall. This can be seen pejoratively or as a quality, one or the other, by implementing medical tourism there is a feeling of betraying the Japanese people by letting foreigners benefit from the care in Japanese hospitals and which specialists could deliver.
It’s an S.O.S Wocher is sending out, to progress in the medical tourism industry and move forward, “we are pressing the government” Wocher says. Wocher sees the medical tourism as a niche market for Japan. “I want to get the word out,” he says.
At Kameda, most medical travelers are coming from China and some from Russia. To increase the traffic of Chinese patients, Kameda medical center recently hired five Chinese nurses who have Japanese medical licenses and two Chinese physicians. Their role is to advise Chinese patients when necessary. “Chinese patients are very comfortable coming here,” Wocher says. “We can also provide chinese food to them.”
Indeed, Kameda takes particular pride in offering to patients more humility and empowerment in the care they are getting. For example, patients have access to their medical records 24/7 or control over the access to media. “They are partners more than spectators,” Wocher says. Kameda patients’ benefits also includes gourmet meals, “and wine, if their medical condition allows it,” smiles Wocher.
Japanese or foreign, patients are kings at Kameda. However, westerners are not likely to come to Japan. According to Wocher, Japan is seen as a far away country for westerners or Oceanians compared to the rest of Asia. Besides, “Japan cannot compete with these low costs, but the longest you’ll have to wait at Kameda is two to four days,” he says hoping to attract Canadians and UK patients. “And we are using cutting-edge technology.”
However, when asked about the difference between a Japanese and a US hospital Wocher answers that Japan hospitals have to wait longer to get devices and drugs approved than in the U.S.
But, according to him there are lots of good reasons to come to Japan. “Japan is a safe country there’s no bombing, no terrorists’ attacks, the water is clean and people are educated,” Wocher says, very eager to accept foreign patients.
“Now it’s the time for us to be very active in the medical tourism industry.”
For the next few years, Wocher hopes to boost the numbers of medical tourists by 50 percent and to increase awareness of Japan’s potential to the Chinese and Russian market and Hawaii and the west coast of the U.S.