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Talking medicine: Mayumi Sawada opens doors to Japanese healthcare

By Martin Leroux for The Journal (ACCJ)

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.”


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.”

Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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If you come from a first-world country, prepared to be disappointed by the healthcare standards in Japan (not the facilities and machinery so much, but the doctors).

7 ( +11 / -4 )

She looks like a ramp model more than a CEO. Good luck!

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I've had nothing but good doctors and excellent healthcare in my 24 years in Japan. During that same time, healthcare in other 1st world countries has deteriorated to 3rd world level.

-5 ( +5 / -10 )

Funny I had nothing but first class service for my medical issues in Japan while i was there...the doctors were pretty through and easy to talk to. And very affordable...even the surgical procedure I had was almost a tenth of what it would have cost here in the states.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

OMG, she would certainly cure what ails me. :)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

domtoidi, right on! I've been hospitalized in both America and Japan many times, most recently, June in America. Me? I'll take Japan medical care over USA any time! Not to mention the ridiculous insurance, payment, costs mess in America! First world cost and third world bureaucracy. It's an absolute mess.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

"the doctors were pretty through and easy to talk to."

You gotta be kidding. When I was at a large Japanese public hospital earlier this year, there was hardly any "talking." A desk clerk told me to write out my symptoms on a clipboard and then another clerk ordered several extensive tests. After 6 hours, I FINALLY saw a doctor - for 5 minutes - who told me the tests weren't necessary and told me to go home and rest. But of course I had to pay for it all.

Unbelievable. I will be going to Bangkok or even Vietnam from now on for much better medical care.

0 ( +6 / -6 )

"the doctors were pretty through and easy to talk to."

You gotta be kidding.

I've found both experiences. Doctors/hospitals can be hit and miss here. When they're good, they can really hit it out of the park. When they suck, they can really suck.

The secret is to find a good doctor before you really need one, so that when things go bad, you know exactly where to go.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Hospitals are profit motivated businesses in Japan. I had a stomach ache and the clinic referred me to a hospital where I was told I would have to spend two weeks in a ward as I had pancreatitis. They called my wife and said I could die.

Turned out it was a gall stone.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I find the med system here quite good. They bend over backwards to make me try to understand. I speak Japanese but the specialty vocab even in my native tongue would be difficult. But I have built up some good vocabulary. Doctors will give me all the time I need and do not push me out.

Pharmacies are great too. They want to really make sure you understand the meds you must take.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Hospitals are profit motivated businesses in Japan.

Oh, please..... do tell me why an emergency room visit in the US is rarely under $3,000, and prescription drugs are many times their cost in Japan. Explain to me why a script for Ativan is a few thousand yen in 'profit motivated' Japan, but $1500 in the US?

3 ( +5 / -2 )

We cannot force Japanese people to be fluent in English, because they are Japanese and they developed their country in every way by using only kokugo... I accept that they should be well organised if they are expecting foreigners to their country and especially in public service such as Hospitals.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Many people are comparing Japan to "1st world countries" and seems like a comparison to the US more or less.. In terms of cost, Japan is much much better. In terms of care, medicine, service hours, America has it, BUT you have to have the right coverage or you are pretty much screwed.

One thing that is excellent about Japan health care is that children are free, you just have to pay the monthly premium.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Lived here 25 years and even spent the night in hospitals twice. The experience here was much better than back home and 1/5 the cost.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Many people are comparing Japan to "1st world countries" and seems like a comparison to the US more or less.. In terms of cost, Japan is much much better. In terms of care, medicine, service hours, America has it, BUT you have to have the right coverage or you are pretty much screwed.

Yeah, my brother, who is quite well off, lives in the states, and he said it's the best medical care he's had anywhere. But he says it's only because he has money.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

People need to take note of people like this and these new multi-lingual businesses = they are the future of Japan. They are taking existing Japanese assets and applying them to the global (language) marketplace. It is a win-win for Japan and its' people. Multi-language learners will be assets for the future Japan global marketplace.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I found facilities are good but the Drs know nothing other than their immediate specialty. You could be getting a successful hand transplant but be dead and Dr wouldn't know because its nothing to do with his great hand surgery.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

People who say the doctors and health care is great and those who say they are not are both right. The problem is that it's a total crap shoot. You CAN get excellent doctors and health care -- especially if you are lucky to get sick or injured during business hours (if not, the odds in the crap shoot REALLY drop because you have to be lucky enough that the doctor on call, if you're accepted to begin with after hours, is of the specialty that ails you) -- but you can also get really terrible doctors and horrible care.

In any case, translation apps are useless outside of specific key words. Try saying "My hip hurts and needs to be replaced" into a translation app and watch the other party giggle or turn red when they think you want to change butts.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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