Navigating a trip to a Japanese hospital

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Going to the hospital is never fun, but the added pressure of doing it in a foreign country – especially if there is a language barrier – can make the task that much more intimidating. Fortunately, Japanese hospitals and healthcare is generally of high quality and is always affordable if you are on the national health insurance plan. While you hopefully won’t need any serious hospital visits during your time in Japan, we take a look at how to make the process go as smoothly as possible in case you do.

Clinics vs hospitals: choosing the right facility

There are health clinics everywhere in Japan. These smaller establishments tend to have only one specialty and may even have only one doctor working there. They specialise in one field (some clinics specialise in more than one), for example dermatology or orthopedics. Most accept walk-in patients, but make sure to check the clinic’s hours.
It’s recommended to visit clinics when the illness is not serious, does not require urgent attention and you have a clinic near you that treats the type of illness you are suffering from.

Hospitals, on the other hand, are much larger, have a wider range of specialisations and accept emergency patients. If your situation does not require urgent care, be prepared to wait a long time to be seen in a hospital – even if you have an appointment. Waiting times in busier Japanese hospitals can take several hours and the initial check-in process for first-time patients has several steps.

First, you need to check in at the front desk, which will then direct you to the health insurance registration desk. You will need to fill in forms with your personal information and you will get an ID card to use at that particular hospital. You will need to submit your health insurance card if you have one. Afterwards, you will be directed to the appropriate department.
After you see the doctor, you will need to visit the payment department to pay your bill.

Prescription medicines

The doctor may prescribe medicine for you, in which case you will need to visit a pharmacy (most hospitals have in-house pharmacies, which you can visit and pay for at the same time as your consultation). Take note of the difference between pharmacies and drugstores in Japan – 薬局 (yakkyoku), or a pharmacy, does not generally sell products other than medicine, whereas drugstores also sell a variety of other things such as health and beauty products in addition to medicine.

Doctors will usually prescribe medicine in the exact amount you need to take – nothing more, nothing less. You may find that you will need to take your medicine more often than you might have to in your home country as dosages in Japan are lighter than other countries.

You will also get given a booklet that contains information about what prescriptions you have received in the past, which is handy to keep a hold of in case of future hospital or clinic visits.

Medicine on shelves

Directory of English-speaking clinics and hospitals

For those of you who are worried about the language barrier, there are several hospitals with English-speaking staff in Tokyo. Depending on the establishment, you may need to wait a bit longer to be seen by an English- speaking doctor. Fortunately, the Tokyo Metropolitan Health and Medical Information Center has services to assist patients in finding care in foreign languages. With service in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Spanish, they can be reached by phone at 03-5285-8181 and are open daily from 9:00 am – 8:00 pm. Additionally, patients can search for hospitals and pharmacies by location and language at their website here. Another list of English-speaking hospitals and clinics can be found in the Expatsguide website.

Health insurance coverage

If you have Japanese National Health Insurance, make sure it is accepted before setting an appointment – surprisingly, some of the clinics that cater to foreigners do not accept the national plan. In this case, you will have to pay for treatment up front and apply for a reimbursement through a private insurance plan.

Know your meds

Japanese doctors are a little too generous when it comes to prescriptions; it is not uncommon to walk into a clinic with a cold or mild fever and walk out with a prescription for five different medications. Make sure you are clear on what you have been given. The antibiotics and cough suppressant might be necessary, but the rest of the pills may not. Of course, check with your doctor before deciding what you need to take and what you don’t.

With all this in mind, you should be able to easily navigate your way around the Japanese healthcare system and Japanese hospitals without worry.

For further information about life in Japan keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.

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