A 75-year-old dying man in Japan was turned away from 25 hospital emergency rooms 36 different times over a two-hour span in early January when paramedics called for a hospital to accept him. The patient had called an ambulance after he had trouble breathing and chest pains.
The man was pronounced dead by the time a hospital accepted him.
The tragic event has led to the questioning of the condition of Japan’s hospitals.
The same incident could happen again, according to The Japan Daily Press. The media reported that Japan’s population is largely made up of elderly people who are living longer lives. Meanwhile, the birthrate is declining in the country.
While younger generations in Japan are not having children, no one but the healthcare field is left to care for the elderly, according to The Press.
Average life expectancy in Japan exceeds 82 years, as it does in Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Health Data 2012 report titled “How Does the United States Compare.”
Not the First Time
As Japan’s media reports the likely recurrence of the unfortunate situation of no available hospital care, it is worth noting that it has happened in the past.
In 2009, a 69-year-old man in Japan was injured in a traffic accident. Paramedics spent more than one hour negotiating with 14 hospitals before one finally admitted him, according to an Associated Press news report.
The hospital admitted the man only after the paramedics called the facility for a second time—more than one hour had passed since the accident.
The man suffered head and back injuries after being struck by a motorcycle. He died of shock from loss of blood. The motorcyclist, also injured, was turned away by two hospitals before being accepted by a third.
In 2008, a pregnant mother suffering from a brain hemorrhage was turned away by eight hospitals in Tokyo. The woman died three days after giving birth and after having been operated on for the hemorrhage.
The most rejections received by a patient seeking emergency admittance into a Japanese hospital was in the case of an elderly woman in her 70s who was having breathing problems. She was turned away 49 times by Tokyo hospitals, AP reported in 2009.
Japan’s Universal Health Coverage
Since the 1960s, Japan has provided universal health coverage. Every resident in Japan is required by law to have health insurance coverage.
There are two types of health insurance: an Employees’ Health Insurance Plan and a National Health Insurance Plan. If the health insurance does not come from an employer, then the Japanese local governments administer national health insurance programs that are supposed to be affordable for people.
The vast majority of hospitals and clinics are privately owned, but the government sets the costs for patients.
“The best thing about the Japanese medical system is that all citizens are covered. Anyone, anywhere, anytime—and it’s cheap,” Dr. Kono Hitoshi told NPR in 2008. Hitoshi ran a private, 19-bed hospital in Tokyo at the time of the interview.
NPR reported in 2008 that people in Japan go to the doctor about three times as often as Americans, and that on average, they stay in the hospital much longer than Americans, according NPR.
“When you are sick—and even if it’s just a cold, you usually go to a hospital,” wrote an online blogger with ZoomingJapan.com who goes by the blogger name of “Jasmine.” Jasmine is originally from Germany but lived in Japan.
Jasmine wrote in 2012 about her hospital experiences while living in Japan.
“There are a few smaller clinics, but it’s very common to go to a hospital. That was very weird for me at first as in Germany we only go to the hospital for ‘bigger’ examinations or if we’re REALLY sick!” she wrote.
“All hospitals I’ve been to so far had a lot of people waiting. They’re always busy!
I’ve had waiting times of 3 hours. It’s really inconvenient for people who have to work every day,” she wrote.
Overall, there are not enough doctors for the overcrowded hospitals in Japan.
“Shortages of doctors are severe in rural areas and in certain specialities, such as surgery, paediatrics and obstetrics,” The Economist reported in 2011, adding that complicated cases get “too little attention.”
“The Japanese are only a quarter as likely as the Americans or French to suffer a heart attack, but twice as likely to die if they do,” The Economist reported.