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