Japan has been actively reinventing itself as a tourist destination in recent years. As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games quickly approach and the influx of visitors grows, Japan is making constant headway in making its capital more accessible. Free Wi-Fi—difficult to find until recently — is now offered in most train stations and by various businesses. On the dining scene, restaurants have begun catering to the varied dietary needs of the international community by adding vegetarian and halal options.
But in the quest for globalization, language remains top priority — especially in the medical field. Because non-Japanese have represented a very small percentage of patients in the country’s hospitals, there is a drought in medical support and assistance for non-speakers of Japanese. As the number of non-Japanese residing in and visiting Japan rises, there is an increasing need for multilingual support to make medicine more accessible to the foreign community.
To rectify the situation, Mayumi Sawada founded mediPhone, a medical interpreting service that aims to create a world in which medicine and healthcare is accessible to all.
“We are working as a non-profit think tank for the medical field,” explained Sawada, CEO of the Japan Institute for Global Health (JIGH).
Since its inception in 2012, key activities have been to provide support for, and present research-backed health policy reform suggestions to, the Japanese government. JIGH is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create strategies for eradicating polio globally by 2018, and to launch the Polio Education Project to raise awareness.
Although JIGH’s primary focuses are global health and polio eradication, the organization is also working to improve healthcare accessibility with its medical translation service, mediPhone. Launched in 2014, the service allows Japanese medical professionals and institutions to communicate directly with non-Japanese-speaking patients, either in person or remotely by telephone. The mediPhone service has been implemented by hospitals across the country, insurance companies such as Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co., Ltd., and real estate companies.
“The service started with an inquiry from a doctor who was having difficulties communicating with a patient who spoke Hindi,” explained Sawada. “The patient could not identify their symptoms either, which made a diagnosis difficult. I wanted to solve these types of problems.”
There were medical interpreters who dealt with these situations, but a majority of them were doing so as volunteers. “There wasn’t a system through which interpreters could help patients while being compensated properly. So, to give a chance for these support providers to establish sustainable careers as medical interpreters, we decided to make it a business,” Sawada said. Within two months of hearing about the incident, she launched mediPhone in beta form.
Presently, the service is available in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Vietnamese, Thai, and French. “The people interpreting for mediPhone are all professional medical interpreters,” said Sawada. “We plan to increase the number of languages in the future. Right now, there is growing demand for Nepalese and Mongolian.”
BUSINESS MEETS MEDICINE
While her organization has broken new ground in Japan’s medical industry, Sawada herself comes from an entirely non-medical background. Prior to JIGH, Sawada’s academic and professional career focused primarily on language and business. She majored in English studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Chinese language at Peking University, and obtained her Master of Science in Management at Imperial College London.
Upon returning to Japan, she went to work at a startup company, and then at Google. It was during her time with the tech giants that Sawada developed an interest in medical issues.
“[Medicine] is one of the world’s greatest challenges, on a large scale,” explained Sawada. “As a business, it’s also very interesting. The problems we work to solve and how we handle them … because they’re issues that directly affect human lives — they’re very sensitive and deep.”
While at Google, Sawada met current JIGH president Dr. Kenji Shibuya and volunteered to help him organize activities and events for World Polio Day. At the time, Shibuya was working on making reforms to both Japanese and international health policies.
“At the time of our meeting, Shibuya was working with Bill Gates in various activities with the goal of eradicating polio,” explained Sawada. “He was looking for someone with whom to start an organization. We met while I was still at Google, and I developed a strong interest in finding solutions to these health issues.”
As a result of their meeting, Sawada and Shibuya decided to partner in establishing an organization dedicated to encouraging innovation and progress in the medical field. With the help of partner organizations and stakeholders, JIGH is striving to improve global health policies. While mediPhone has gained recognition within the Japanese health and medical world, Sawada says there are plans to go bigger.
“I want mediPhone to be a service that can be used from anywhere, and by as many people as possible. I would like it to be accessible regardless of where our clients are, and to have a mechanism that allows companies to use the service to assist their employees.”
But in moving the organization forward, Sawada also hopes mediPhone will play a pivotal role in making communication in Japan easier for those who cannot speak Japanese.
“We are leading up to the Olympics, and there are more people who either visit or move here. In times of trouble, I want us to be able to offer support not only to the global community, but also to companies by providing medical interpreting as well as medical assistance through collaboration with emergency physicians. We will continue to expand our service to increase our multilingual medical support.”
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