If you want to live in Japan – or even if you are just visiting – it is very important to get familiar with the medical system. Depending on where you are from, the medical system might be very different or not that different at all. Still, going to the doctor was always a challenge for me, even in my home country, so going to the doctor in Japan sometimes seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. Now that I have gotten a bit older, I feel like I have gotten somewhat used to the idea of having somebody else analyze and judge my body, although I still feel uncomfortable. So, for people that may still be struggling with the idea of visiting a hospital or a doctor in Japan, I hope that I can make it a bit easier for you.
But first, what about money?
If your stay in Japan is 6 months or longer, you are required by law to have health insurance. Generally speaking, there are two types of health insurance in Japan: one for unemployed people and one for employed people (I simplify a lot here, if you want to read more about insurance I have written an article about it). Once you are at a medical facility, the two types of insurance generally do work the same though. People who have insurance, generally only have to cover 30% of the fee of most general medical procedures with the insurance covering the remaining 70%. There are some procedures that are not covered by insurance (cosmetic surgery, childbirth, STD testing among others), so it is a good idea to check in advance. Also, since I see it mentioned sometimes: no calling an ambulance does not cost you anything unless you are judged to have made a prank call.
The language barrier
While there are some English-speaking clinics in Tokyo, and younger doctors may sometimes know rudimentary English, hospital or clinic staff will generally only be able to speak Japanese. If you feel like you might not be able to explain yourself, try searching online for places that might be able to help you in English (or any other Language) or bring someone who can translate on your behalf. There are also translation services available that will dispatch a translator to accompany you or translate for you over the phone – for a cost.
I have seen other blogs do vocabulary lists, so I guess I should try making one too. So here is a list of the different medical practices and what they are called in Japanese (not an exhaustive list since I will probably forget some). The translations are not literal and are meant for people to understand what they can expect when they visit this type of clinic.
内科 – naika – internist, generalist medicine
歯科 – shika – dentist
眼科 – ganka – eye medicine
耳鼻科 – jibika – ear, nose, and throat medicine
皮膚科 – hifuka – skin medicine
尿器科 – nyoukika – urology
胃腸科 – ichouka – stomach and bowel medicine
小児科 – shounika – pediatrician
(産)婦人科 – (san)fujinka – (obstetrician), gynecologist
Obviously, there are many more but I think the above list should cover most basic needs. Clinics will often specialize in one of the above. When it comes to hospitals, there are specialized, as well as generalist places that cover a wider range of disciplines.
I have a medical problem, what to do?
If it is an emergency, stop reading this and call an ambulance. Otherwise, choose what kind of treatment you need from the list above and take it to Google, together with the name of your area (for example “耳鼻科 小平市”). If you do not know what kind of treatment you need, go to an internist and they will generally tell you where you have to go. Google reviews are a decent indicator of what you can expect. If you want to take it further and make sure you go to the best doctor (often simply meaning the one with the friendliest staff), there are also dedicated review sites but they are all in Japanese. If it is not urgent, consider calling in advance to make an appointment. Especially in bigger cities, waiting times can be quite long if you simply walk in.
Speaking of which, once you walked into a clinic/hospital, the first thing you need to do is make your way to the reception (受付, uketsuke). Explain why you are here – just something like “My eye hurts and I would like it looked at” is enough – and if you have an appointment, let them know. Then you will be asked to hand over your insurance card and, if it is your first time at this particular clinic/hospital, you will also be asked to fill out a カルテ (karute from German Karte, many german loan words in Japanese medicine), which forms the basis of your medical file. The カルテ is in Japanese and most places will expect you to fill it out in Japanese, so if you can not write Japanese very well, ask somebody who can. That being said, some of the information asked is very basic, such as your name, age, and address, but sometimes it might ask for important information such as allergies or illnesses you have/had, so make sure you read and understand everything.
Once you have filled out your カルテ, hand it back to the receptionist and they will return your insurance card to you. Now you have to wait for the doctor to see you. Some places have a number system, where you receive a number at the reception and are called by that. Other places will simply call you by your name. In any case, once you are called, you may proceed to the 診察室 (shinsatsushitsu, examination room) where the doctor will have a first chat with you, figure out what is wrong and how they can help you.
And with that, we have reached the end of this article, since everything that comes after this point will vary greatly on a person-by-person basis. I hope I was able to give you a general idea of what you can expect. If all goes well, I will write a bit more about this topic next friday. See you then!