Japan’s Doctor Shortage Resulting in Patient Deaths

February 05, 2009 11:53 AM
by Emily Coakley
A man who died after his care was delayed because understaffed hospitals refused to treat him is the latest casualty in Japan’s long-running doctor shortage.

Japanese Hospitals Frequently Turn Away Patients

A Japanese man died earlier this week following a bicycle collision with a motorcycle, but not until after 14 hospitals refused to treat him, one emergency response official said.

The hospitals refused to treat the man because they didn’t have the beds, staff or equipment to help him, the Mainichi Daily News reports. He had head and back injuries, and “died of shock from loss of blood,” the paper said. The incident, which occurred in the western city of Itami, is not uncommon in Japan, which has struggled for years with doctor shortages.

In April, the Japan Times reported the results of a government survey that said there were more than 14,000 cases in 2007 “in which seriously ill patients in ambulances were turned away by institutions more than three times before finally being accepted.”

Hospitals in Japan need an estimated 10,000 more doctors than they currently have, the Daily Telegraph reported. In December, the newspaper reported a Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry study that said nearly 300 medical interns had illegally worked as doctors in the previous four years.

“All medicine is a risky practice but this is an issue of patient safety and cannot be tolerated. Managing trainees must be strictly controlled and they should be under the supervision of a senior doctor,” Masami Ishii, a member of the Japan Medical Association, told the Daily Telegraph.

Background: Japan’s doctor shortage has many causes

Medicine is not the most attractive profession in Japan. It requires long hours, and some doctors believe that the government-regulated system keeps salaries stagnant, Agence France-Presse reported in March 2008.

“Now, students prefer professions like ophthalmology since all the wages are the same,” the health ministry’s chief officer for emergency medical care, Seizan Tanabe, told AFP.

Shortages elsewhere, such as in the United States, are often ameliorated by allowing doctors from other countries to immigrate. But Japan’s immigration policies, which greatly limit who can work there, also decrease the pool of available doctors.

Complicating the situation, some officials say, is an aging population and over-reliance on ambulances. According to the Japan Times, “The population of people aged 65 or older increased 40 percent in the last decade, but ambulance patients in that age group jumped 108 percent, according to the health ministry.”

Some measures the government has taken to improve the situation include increasing the amount of scholarships available for medical students, and creating hotlines parents can call in lieu of visiting the hospital if their children fall ill in the middle of the night.

Related Topic: Doctor shortages around the world

Last year, Australia’s government announced plans to spend $102 million on training more doctors. According to findingDulcinea, “Australia’s shortage of doctors is indicative of a worldwide trend, caused by several factors, including health worker migration and an increase in female doctors, who often leave the industry. In addition, many medical students are choosing to specialize instead of becoming family doctors.”

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