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Japan slow to embrace medical tourism

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A young Italian man, his head swathed in bandages, emerges from the hospital rehab room, walking with difficulty as well he might -- he’s slowly recovering from major brain surgery. “I’d hoped to wake up and go mountaineering,” he says ruefully. “Well, I was warned, so I’m not really disappointed.”

How did he end up at Fukushima Kinen Hospital in Nagara, Chiba Prefecture? He’s part of something new in Japan, though widespread and flourishing elsewhere in Asia, says Shukan Asahi (Feb 19) -- medical tourism.

Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and India are especially welcoming toward foreign patients seeking expert medical care at affordable prices. Japan has the expertise and its medical costs are relatively low; what it has lacked so far is the will to promote these assets overseas. Japan’s medical establishment, the magazine says, is a “closed culture.” But Leonardo, the young Italian, is evidence that it’s opening.

Fukushima Kinen Hospital is named for world-renowned brain surgeon Takanori Fukushima. He’s based at Duke University in North Carolina and spends only two days a month at Nagara. Leonardo is 23. His brain tumor had paralyzed him from the waist down and impaired his vision. His surgeon in Italy frankly admitted that the required operation was beyond his skill.

Leonardo’s brother learned of Fukushima on the Internet. Contact was made, and Fukushima agreed to operate. A high-gear fundraising drive launched in Leonard’s home town in Tuscany drew in 100,000 euros (12.4 million euros) -- enough to cover the surgery, 20 days’ hospitalization, an interpreter’s fees, and travel expenses for three family members. He arrived in Japan on Jan 3 and was operated on three days later. The surgery took 11 hours. Fukushima succeeded in removing 70% of the tumor.

Founded in 2007, Fukushima Kinen as of December had treated 84 foreign patients. The number pales next to a typical Thai hospital, which would number its foreign patients in the thousands, but it’s a start, and other hospitals have similar programs, one at least dating back to 2002. Fukushima hospital patients come from all over the world -- from Pakistan, Ukraine, Britain, Taiwan, and, interestingly enough, the U.S. Americans would have easier access to Dr Fukushima at home -- but, reports Shukan Asahi, costs in Japan are roughly a 10th what they are in the U.S.

Desperate patients with life-threatening conditions are by no means the only “medical tourists.” More typical -- and more in keeping with the tourist image -- is a new wave of hyper-wealthy Chinese mixing a dose of medical prudence in with some rather exuberant sightseeing.

“Some of these people are richer than you or I can imagine,” the magazine hears from a travel agent. “Deluxe hotels, hideaway homes in Hakone, three-star dining…” The medical lure is Japan’s famed “ningen dokku” -- high-tech medical checkups whose comprehensive thoroughness is much admired abroad.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has acknowledged medical tourism’s potential economic benefits. It means a revenue infusion from overseas at a time of shrinking funds covering soaring needs as society ages. “We’re encouraged by other countries’ success with medical tourism,” says a ministry spokesman.

There is resistance to overcome, however, as patients wonder whether waiting lists for surgery, already long, would get longer.

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

36 Comments
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about a third of the world's most cutting-edge drugs are unavailable in japan due to restrictions, according to Phrma. it's a similar situation with medical devices. Unless Japan reforms its procurement methods, patients best stay away and go instead to Thailand.

This is an odd story, given that gaijin forums are filled with horror stories about experiencing Japan's healthcare system.

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The drugs are too weak for a lot of foreigners. I'm also not a big fan of having to take 7 different drugs for a fever instead of one cough syrup or pill. When your sick medicine is cheap, which is very nice. But prescription meds are the same price as the US. Plus, they don't carry the acid reflux medicine I need, which goes with what JeffLee says about cutting edge drugs. There's other issues, such as the drugs not working for me and a lack of actual checking the doctors do, but it's nice to hear they are helping those with serious conditons from abroad.

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I would avoid serious medical treatment like the plague (pun intended) in Japan. Japan enjoys long lifespan DESPITE its medical treatment. There may be one exception, however, and that is Kameda Medical in Chiba (I have no disclosures to make). http://www.kameda.com/us/

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but it's nice to hear they are helping those with serious conditons from abroad.

yes, dame de motomoto...!

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good medical care is available in japan, as elsewhere...if you can pay for it. if you using national health insurance, good luck...

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As mentioned the drugs are not available here due to a cartel set up by the J-pharm companies. Much like Narita airport being set up miles away from Tokyo as there was vested interest in the construction and running of Tokyo's airport in another prefecture (state). Personally I wouldn't send a dog to some of these doctors. So weigh it up people, no drugs, archaic practices and an aversion to anesthetic in all except major surgery. Go elsewhere if I was you..

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japan is slow to adopt everything...that's why it's been sliding towards insignificance for 25 years

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It's a good thing the industry is stunted. I will never entrust my wellbeing to Japanese private medicine.

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I would prefer medical treatment in Japan over the toooo SLOW UK... where after wait after wait after wait, referral, referral, etc, wait after wait for results, don't know how to use the kit they have ( if they even have it).... it will be too late to treat what they might or might not even be able to find

...seen it soooo many times and that why uk health system is held in such low opinion by Japanese living there ... such that they would rather fly to Japan just for a simple dental check up/work.

Guess the USA has that coming if they go UK NHS style.

Prefer Japan to USA or UK as is now.

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"Japan has the expertise "

HUH?!?!?!?! This statement confuses me greatly.

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costs in Japan are roughly a 10th what they are in the U.S.

Perhaps there is some truth to this generalized statement, but the simple fact of the matter is that so many Japanese go to the U.S. for much-needed surgeries anyway-from the common subject to the most famous ones.

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Medical Tourism in Japan? What a joke! Ive been hospitalized twice in Japan and both were bad experiences. While there are some great doctors here, there are also plenty of bad ones, and their treatment and wierd practices are from another world. Medical tourism will never take off here. Id go to Thailand. There, the people also smile at you, and mean it, and they welcome foreigners.

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What a joke! Ive been hospitalized twice in Japan and both were bad experiences. While there are some great doctors here, there are also plenty of bad ones, and their treatment and wierd practices are from another world.

You got that right. Clueless doctors and insufficient hospital care forced me out of the country after 10 years.

This one hospital might be on to something, but few other Japanese medical facilities and care providers want to have their business hinge on foreigners getting their medical needs attended to in Japan.

Japan will be lucky to even provide a modicum of care for its own, especially the elderly, in the coming years.

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about a third of the world's most cutting-edge drugs are unavailable in japan due to restrictions, according to Phrma. it's a similar situation with medical devices. Unless Japan reforms its procurement methods, patients best stay away and go instead to Thailand.

I tend towards the rah-rah Japan side but I completely agree with this. If I were truly sick and needed affordable cutting edge care I'd go to Bumrungrad in Bangkok. I've had generally decent experiences with the health care here but i've heard the horror stories, mostly from locals...

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I get the famed ningen-dokku every year here and they always tell me I have any number of problems which require further extensive testing but when I go back to my home country the doctors who look into these so-called problems tell me there's nothing wrong with me and that Asian doctors are always scamming patients for more testing to line their pockets with the huge paybacks from the national health insurance loot.

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after i dislocated my elbow, was later sent to physio, the physio was to scared to talk to me because I was a foreigner even though throughout everything i spoke in Japanese. When she finally did come all she did was look in a book and say maybe this or...this. Medical tourism in Japan it will never happen especially when there is Singapore, Thailand, India etc nearby, much cheaper and friendlier.

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Love Japan, loathe the medical system. Diabetes treatment is way behind other developed nations. And my own personal experience wasn't good. Two doctors - including a chest specialist - failed to diagnose double pneumonia. My husband I always say that we would need to be medivac-ed out of Japan should we ever have an urgent medical situation. I have absolutely no confidence in the system.

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Medical tourism will never take off over here. The training system is too feudalistic, the doctors, especially the dentists are totally incompetent. With malpractice lawsuits growing exponentially, maybe the Japanese healthcare providers are scared of Gaijin patients. I am an American M.D./DDS here in Japan, however, the common motto among them are"外人の患者はうるさいね。。。。。i.e. non-Japanese patients are too inquisitive about the their medical conditions and ask too many questions. Get a second opinion from a Thai /Indian doctor , and they will salami you. Question their authority, and run like HELL!!! Many lawyers will not even take on a malpractice case because they know they will not get anywhere. BTW, most of the private medical/dental school students get in by making huge donations. When I gave a lecture, most of the residents were sleeping or talking amongst themselves about the foxy hostess that they frequent at Ginza clubs paid by u know what companies. However, I found Japanese M.D's/DDS's quite good at research....but only in the field of tissue/culture methodology and electrophysiology, due to the fact that u have to be a very patient technician to conduct good research on it. But then again they have the manpower to do so. It is amazing that on one publication they will have about 12 researcher's name on it. In the States, it is usually about 2~3 reseacher's name on the publication.. However, the original ideas(research methodology) came from other countries and they would do a juxtaposition of their publications out of it. They r good at manipulating data, and kaizen at it's BEST. Food 4 thought.

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Basically, I think it depends on the goodwill of the health provider. In that sense, HMO's r great. They are more into preventive health care rather than treatment health care. However I have to say that the Japanese heath care providers needs to have better bedside manners(M.D.'s) and chairside manners(DDS's). Being too authoritarian can initiate labcoat hypertension, leading to a battery of tests as to the etiology of your hypertension. However, HMO's r a pain in the neck for us health care providers.

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Japan slow to adopt embrace medical tourism

As a person well aware of nuts and bolts of health care system here, I would say medical tourism doesn’t pay off under current universal health care system. The reason is that simple.

@MeJapanese, “Basically, I think it depends on the goodwill of the health provider. In that sense, HMO's r great. They are more into preventive health care rather than treatment health care.”

Health care industry in US is exploiting people like you. Why do they have TEN times more of H1N1 death per 10,000 people in US than that in here? Fortunately no “HMO-Atrocities’” or “Managed Care horror stories” here. According to the international comparative survey results done by OECD, the performance status of Japanese health care system is the best among the member countries; the rich countries in the world. US consumers should be let known that, in spite of huge money they pay into the insurance or to the drugs, they don’t get medical care of those money worth. For example, the survival rate of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, which are the most common form of cancer now, of US patients are inferior to those in Cuba (Cancer survival in five continents: a worldwide population-based study(CONCORD). Lancet Oncol 2008;9:730-56 ) Michel Moor is not exaggerating facts, “inconvenient” facts for medical industry in US.

Japanese research? Don’t worry. Discovery of iPS is achieved by Japanese scientist, which is the cream of the crop for the medical science for the future.

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Health care industry in US is exploiting people like you. Why do they have TEN times more of H1N1 death per 10,000 people in US than that in here? Fortunately no “HMO-Atrocities’” or “Managed Care horror stories” here. According to the international comparative survey results done by OECD, the performance status of Japanese health care system is the best among the member countries; the rich countries in the world. US consumers should be let known that, in spite of huge money they pay into the insurance or to the drugs, they don’t get medical care of those money worth. For example, the survival rate of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, which are the most common form of cancer now, of US patients are inferior to those in Cuba (Cancer survival in five continents: a worldwide population-based study(CONCORD). Lancet Oncol 2008;9:730-56 ) Michel Moor is not exaggerating facts, “inconvenient” facts for medical industry in US.

Well that is true. The best and the brightest in the States since the mid-1980's are not going for their MD/DDS degrees anymore. U're far better off financially by going for an MBA degree in health care management. Insurance companies run the whole show now. Maybe that is the reason y 40% of the health care providers in the States r foreign medical graduates. Gone r the days of Marcus Welby M.D. Also, I am of the belief that National Heath Insurance provides every man, woman and child w/basic primary health care, regardless of past medical histories or the ability to to pay for a good heath insurance provider. However, the National health insurance system is a breeding ground for corruption. With the type of pay MD'S and DDS'S get over here, no wonder they are constantly angry, thus taking out their frustration on the patients. Most of my MD colleagues have some type of scheme going to keep their private practice afloat. I know one MD who has to see over 120 patients per day. Dentists are infamous for taking several visits to finish a simple procedure such as a root canal treatment.(pulpectomy). That way they can rack up the points and bill more from the govt. It is indeed a complex situation. Due to the National Health Insurance system, health care providers have to do sloppy work. How can u offer quality care when u r paid only 1700 yen for a root canal treatment when in the States endodontists will charge you at least a thousand dollars. But human beings are creatures of habit, and if u continually do the same type of sloppy treatment, u kinda forget to do it the proper way. In many ways, the health care providers are embezzling the govt. No wonder so many patients over here bring wads of bills wrapped in white paper to ensure that they receive the proper care/attention that they should receive. In terms of research, iPS is not everything. And Japanese researchers have to be more creative rather than just publishing papers which instantly goes into the waste basket for many researchers around the world. The residency training over here is godawful. More time is spent polishing apples for the prof. rather than actual training. However, I will not back down from the fact that a statistically significant amount of med and especially dental school students don't have the proper IQ to have gotten into med/dental schools. Many private schools think that it is ethically OK, due to the tradition of heirs following up on the family line of business. When u have spoiled rotten kids becoming doctors/dentists by way of gaining admission through the power of the yen, how can they understand the sufferings a patient is going through. I may receive a lot of flack for this, but if u have to see a physician/dentist over here, try to seek one who graduated from a public school, whether dental or medical. I have seen many fine health care providers over here, and more often than not, they were graduates of public rather than private med/dental schools.

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Medical Tourism???who thought that one up.

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Why on earth would anyone come here for medical care?!? There must be dozens of places around the world with better care.

My experiences with the Japanese medical world have been universally negative. Over a ten year period I have failed to find a doctor I trust. I have never experienced a hospital that was even remotely competent when compared to the US hospitals. And I have found most doctors to be simply outlets for large bags of excessive prescriptions making them look more like commercial drug dealers than actual doctors.

Sure access is universal here. And sure basic, very basic, care is great. But if you get really sick here, I fear for you. So why would you bring your serious illness here to be treated? This is foolish and most likely explains why Japan is so far behind in having foreigners flocking here to seek care. They are very likely to get a big bag of random medications and have their illness written off as overwork only.

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tkoind2- gee u've figured out the system very well over here. R u a health care provider too?

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Do your homework. If you're looking for a brain stem surgeon, Fukushima is the best. Japan's medical system may leave much to be desired, but priority in the case of a brain tumor is finding the best surgeon with the most experience. Follow the doctor.

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medical tourism would greatly improve medical service and care in Japan therefore, I hope it happens.

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Dear Jeff Lee: Ur comment/post was most interesting. I have always wondered y a third of the most cutting edge/state of the art medications are not available in Japan. Since the early '80's, the most advanced antibiotics that have taken over the greatest market share in the world have been made in Japan. Furthermore, since the '90's , the Japanese have taken over a huge market share of the cutting edge anti-hypertension medications in the States. The list goes on till the break of dawn. It was always strange that a lot of the anesthiologists(sic) over here knew a lot about anesthigia(sic)at the textbook level, however they were only trained in just a few of them in an actual surgical procedure. Of further interest is the in the field of biomaterials or even dental materials where they have the cutting edge products sold in the States but are not available over here. During the '60's , the Japanese started to hold a major share of the scanning electron microscope market. Now most of the CT scans and MRI's in the States are made in Japan. I see a few of them here at teaching hospitals but many of the health care providers don't even know how to interpret them. Needless, to say, many cardiologists don't even know the basics of how to read an EKG. I don't want my posting to become an endless criticism of medical and dental care over here because it is a waste of time for me, but y is it that these cutting edge medications and medical/dental instruments made in Japan are not available to the the Japanese patient population???????? I am currently udergoing a study of the health care system over here before I return to the States, so any info shall be highly appreciated.

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who has the better health care system though. America may have the best hospitals but unless you have insurance you are screwed, and even when you have insurance you can still be screwed. The UK where im from has great doctors but the hospitals need more money and they often seem dirty and the nurses have no time for you. My poor father has had a couple of bad experiences in hospital. BUT its free, so theres one good point, even though you may wait for 6 months for your op. In japan ive never had an operation but my wife has and the staff were great and she got her op the same week she went into the hospital. My experiences have been good so far(touch wood) the doctors have been okay and the one time i had a problem, a lump under my arm they did a load of tests inclding an MRI all with in a week, in the UK i would have been waiting ages. But here you still have to pay. But i think i would rather have an operation here, just because the hospitals are so clean and the nurses actually seem to take care if you.

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i have had decent treatment in Japan when i have had need to visit a doctor, and my dentist is excellent. My local doctor correctly diagnosed a food allergy, which developed when i was 38 years old, and i had been eating that fruit since i was a child. Very surprised, but he was right. By contrast, i was misdiagnosed last time i visited a doctor in my country, and it almost killed me.

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I read somewhere about it last year. The point they want to have medical tourists is GoJ program to reach their 10,000,000 tourists target. As we know it is not going to happen (fingerprinting, photographing even residents, unwelcome foreigners and list goes on) they decided to go ahead with medical tourism after all. I had twice mistake with diagnose. In Emergency rooms here in hospitals are students not real doctors,and you still have to wait 4h regardless of your condition. A student told me "I had sick like old men and usually ppl dies and you dont have water in your body, all is under your lungs" Well, I thought, she might be sick. No water in my body = Im already dead. I took into account that this is only 大学病院 where things happens. She wasnt able to explain what is it and why I have 39,9C fever, just big surprise on her site. She also asked me politely: "You dont want to stay in hospital, right?" I think she probably knows what we foreigners think about it. I said, youre right, Im not going to be killed here. As usual I was asked to come back to "real" internal medicine doctor after the weekend. I did it and all Mr. "God" did was, look at his computer and saying that "You are fine now, right, take some medicine". My X-ray was in front of him but he even didn`t take a look. It looked like she trusted that girl so much. Waiting time 3h, Visit 3min. 2 weeks after this I flew to Europe and took full health check up. No problems were found at all. My doctor told me that I should come back to japan and tell that student that she has water in her brain.I was also explained what was it and why my blood test was as it was. Here we are. I and my Japanese wife never go to J doctors, unless recommended by foreign clinic. Only in such case we had good experience.

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I kind of have more to add which reflects some of the comments above but not all in the same way. Its ironic, a couple of days after reading this article I have research doctor friend at a world leading university in the uk would who as one poster above put it has had to be medivac’d out of the uk back to Japan.. shutting up shop and their life there in a matter of a few very busy days. The reasons being multiple, but a difference between life and death; but as others have said the length of time you have to wait for anything to happen, staff not knowing how to use their latest “made in Japan equipment” ( maybe because the difference in training culture as part of work in general?).. but anyway the main thing that reflects on the this article is the snobbish-ness or class of service. From others I know that work in the UK health service ( some Japanese).. they are quite clear that depending on your class there is an unwritten or whispered rule of how good a level of service you will get.. with doctors at the top, middle class a little lower and well “foreigners”.. .well they can just forget it. In this case the person in question having to waiting many months to get his results back from scans etc ( which the hospital staff don’t always know how to use – the operators squabbling with the doctors that I’m not going to do this because “I” don’t see any need to do this and disagreeing with the doctors that knows a bit more about the case ( seen this many times)… anyway regardless if this person could have just seen his own results he could probably could have diagnosed it better because of his research work)..anyway with time ticking by it was time to escape. [it was telling that as soon as they found out he was a doctor the 3 months wait went down to a couple of weeks…even that too long]. This is common story for locals too, the doctors turning round to say well if only we knew something about your condition sooner then maybe we could do something about it and cure it and you won’t die… all those hurdles(local gps etc) that you had to jump through just to get to see me to tell you that. This is all to common for the local so for foreigners; well… So in this case its makes more sense to come back to Japan where treatment of illness where time is important you have a possibility of choosing service with a faster response as opposed to what you are lumbered with your local prefecture hospital… again something to be said for health checks as available in Japan, because even if not perfect, proactive is a lot better than a system that is reactive AND slow. So the main point relating to this article out of ALL the above and as with others there can always be a long story.. is that the treatment of “foreigners” or even health tourists has to be done to a reasonable level. The problem in some places where health care is provided or part provided by taxes you get as is becoming more prevalent in a lot of countries recently a bad feeling towards “foreigners” who appear ( regardless of whether its true or not) not to be contributing to the running cost of the hospital or public service. So if its clear the tourist are paying their way and that a good thing, then there should be any excuses.

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One thing health wise that Japan could be good at which is relatively simple is dental care. In the uk many Japanese are shocked when they have to go for dental treatment when the dentists ask them in wonder “who did your previous dental work its very good”…. The patient now worrying about what the dentist is about to do!! This is comparing with the UK though.. not famous for teeth… and Japanese then making the trip just to Japan for dental work shows how bad it is… and of course being too polite to explain to fellow nhs hospital workers why. Lol.

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Medical Tourism???who thought that one up.

I got this from Wikipedia:

Spa towns and sanitariums may be considered an early form of medical tourism. In eighteenth century England, for example, patients visited spas because they were places with supposedly health-giving mineral waters, treating diseases from gout to liver disorders and bronchitis.[3]

The actual term came from travel agencies, but I don't know when. I have a cousin who routinely travels to thailand for treatment and a brother who went to Brazil for medical treatment. So far, I'm satisfied with what I get in Japan.

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Bhum rad gard in Thailand is the best for medical tourism. A doctor that speaks your language, half the cost of the US and a holiday thrown in as well. Dental work maybe of a good quality, but how much does it cost? 90,000 yen for an implant, 100,000yen for a bridge?

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medical travel is better in young developing countries like Lithuania: visit www.way2lithuania.com or simply click this: http://www.way2lithuania.com/en/travel-lithuania/medical-tourism-lithuania why medical tourism in Lithuania? Plastic surgery, dental surgery - best quality and prices.

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The best is still to come.Japan Medical Tourism will soon rise.

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