The medical technology in Japan is certainly one of the best in world and the social health insurance system of Japan makes it a lot more affordable. The Japanese medical system can be a little intricate at first for any foreigner. But, if you are a victim of your anarchistic body, you will soon get the hang of it. This is my tale of an eight-month long adventure with the Japanese medical system, which includes a Laparoscopic surgery, and five days of hospitalization. Read along if you would like to know what awaits you in a Japanese Hospital.
A few months after coming to Japan, I started feeling a bit weird in my lower belly. At that time, Japanese was still Greek to me, so I started looking for English speaking doctors in Sapporo. Before long I stumbled upon Sapporo English Medical Interpreter`s (SEMI) website. SEMI is a group of amazing people in Sapporo who volunteer as interpreters in all medical situations. I contacted SEMI with my query of visiting a gynaecologist and immediately heard back from them. I booked an appointment through SEMI’s help at the M`s Ladies clinic . I had my consultation with a Japanese speaking gynaecologist (GYN). She did an ultrasound that felt kooky due to the presence of a curtain between the doctor and me. I was diagnosed with a large Myoma that was cnoodling my uterus . The GYN couldn’t comment on its malignancy due to the dubious nature of the fibroid and she referred me to the Hokudai Medical Hospital for further diagnosis. Needless to say one of the interpreters booked the appointment on my behalf.
The many hospital visits:
On the day of my appointment with the Fujinka (ふじんか- Ob-Gynac) department at the Hokudai Hospital, I filled up a registration form in Japanese with the help of my interpreter. The hospital issued me with a card that I was instructed to insert at the machines in the lobby every time I come for an appointment. Once inserted, all the information regarding my appointments on that particular day will get printed at the back of this card.
To determine the exact size and the location of the fibroid, I was put through a series of tests including CT scan, MRI etc. Getting around the huge Hokudai hospital for these tests was a cherry pie with the help of the colored lines on the floor giving direction to different departments. I had to fill more forms giving my health history for these tests. However, I was impressed by the attention to detail and the amount of care that was taken during these tests. Every time I got pricked with a needle, the Japanese nurses apologized 10 times which made me forget my pain and feel bad for her 😐 . After all the tests, I was advised to go through a laparoscopic myomectomy to remove the fibroid. The doctor also prescribed me an injection every month to shrink the size of the Myoma before the surgery. That led to monthly hospital visits for the next 6 months to get the injection. Meanwhile, they routinely took blood samples each month and did ultrasounds to check the progress. My surgery was finally scheduled for the first week of January 2015.
The thought of having a surgery for the first time in my life and that too away from family gave me heebie-jeebies 😯 . Although I was quite confident about my doctor, I wanted to be sure as hell before going ahead for the surgery. Therefore, I decided to go for a second opinion. Second opinions are not very common in Japan and are based only on the reports that your current doctor will provide. The consultation fees for second opinion is not covered by the health insurances and it can be quite expensive. After the consultation if you decide to go ahead with the latter hospital, you will need to go through the same ordeal of registration and a myriad of tests. I had to pay 30,000 JPY 😥 for the second consultation but the doctor assured me that all diagnosis and recommended procedures are spot on. He also asked me who is my primary doctor and told me that I am in the best place to get this procedure done. Hearing that gave me a massive boost of confidence.
Two weeks before the surgery I went through another round of exorbitant number of tests such as MRI, X-rays, ECG, Lung tests, Blood test, etc . All this took an entire day including an appointment with the anesthesiologist. I also had to fill up a hospitalization form giving employer details, guarantor details and all the teensy-weensy information of my life including the number of times I pee in a day. The hospital give me a big list of the things that I have to bring on the day of hospitalization. It included disposable cutlery, face towels, bath towels, sanitary napkins and cosmetics (for the feel good factor) 🙄 . The only things you will get from the hospital are food, medicine and pajamas.
Blunder before the surgery:
During my pre-surgery preparation appointment, I was prescribed a dose of laxative to start eating one week before the surgery. Being a Czarina of procrastination, I decided to buy the tablets just a day before I had to start taking them. Unfortunately, during New year holidays, no business happens in Japan and most of the pharmacies and hospitals are closed. After measuring the length and breadth of Sapporo by visiting a number of pharmacies including the regular drug store (Over The Counter and cosmetics) and the Yakkyoku (prescription drugs). I found one store that was open and got to know that the prescription has already expired (in Japan prescriptions expire in 4 days – valuable information that I did not know). I had to wait for the day when the hospital opened back again (3rd Jan) to get a second prescription.
I was asked to get hospitalized a day before the scheduled surgery date. After filling up a bundle of forms again in the morning with the help of my interpreter, I was taken to my room. The room was a shared one with two other beds separated by curtains. The nurse gave me a general orientation to the ward by trying her best to read out from an English handout. I changed into the hospital dress and settled in my home for the next 5 days. My little shared room had a TV cabinet with a small fridge and mobile charging point. The appliances and charging point would only work when a 1000 yen card bought from the hospital is inserted. My first and last meal before the surgery was a Japanese lunch. I could drink any kind of liquid until 9 pm and then just wait for the surgery morning. The lights went off at 9 pm and the whole night I was sweating bullets thinking about the surgery tomorrow.
The Surgery :
In the morning, lights came on at 6:00 am and I was forced to wake up with the arrival of the nurse armed with a Japanese–English dictionary. She punctured me again to take blood samples and attach an Intravenous drip (IV). She also checked my blood pressure, body temperature and weight. At 10 am, a new nurse came in, confirmed my name and the surgery that I will be going through and gave me a pair of compression stockings to wear (to avoid DVT due to lack of movement after the surgery). She told me that the operating room (OR) was ready for my surgery. I went towards the OR holding my IV drip stand and along with me went the stretcher on which I would come back. This made me a bit more nervous. At the entrance of surgery ward, I was again asked my name and surgery details 😕 and then guided to the OR .
There were about 6-7 people inside including my doctor who asked my name again and the surgery I will be going through. The anesthesiologist said that they just want to make sure they are doing the right procedure on the right patient. Hearing that I was terror-stricken and their attempts on cracking jokes in English to relax me weren’t helping 😯 . I changed into operation gown and before I could get any more nervous, the anesthesiologist got to work and I was in dreamland. They woke me up after the surgery in the OR and took me back to my room. The next couple of hours are consigned to oblivion. However, I do remember nauseating in agony and pressing the nurse button call constantly. After becoming cognizant of my surrounding, I heard my partner trying to pacify me down. He told me I score full grades to get nausea after surgery as I am a non-smoking woman who suffers from motion sickness and is currently on painkillers through IV drip 😡 . They gave me medication to reduce nausea but I don’t think it was working. The nausea reduced after 6 hours and I caught some sleep during the night. I woke up in pain many times as the nurse came to check on me.
The next morning, lights were up again at 6:00 am and I was given my first sip of water. The nurse helped me to brush and I had some breakfast. She also helped me to take my first steps after the surgery. The doctor came and explained everything in detail with the help of some gory photographs taken during my surgery. In short everything was perfect and all had to do now was eat, rest and walk. From there it was just a road to recovery achieving the small milestones of walking longer distances and having a proper bowel movement. On the fifth day after the surgery, I was given a green signal to go home. It took me about two weeks to get back to normal life.
Japanese medical insurance expense coverage system:
As you may already know that if you have an employer’s insurance or national insurance in Japan you only need to pay 30% of all costs. During all of my consultations, my bill was anywhere between 1000-7000 JPY, depending on the number of tests I am going through that day. The only exception was the tumor reducing injection, which cost about 10,000 each. In total, I may have spent about 100,000 JPY on everything prior to the surgery.
A very important clause to the 30% rule is the maximum limit for you to pay in a month. Meaning there is a limit to the amount of money you need to spend per month on medical expenses. Anything beyond that set amount can be reimbursed after four months. In case of a pre-planned surgery like mine you can visit the insurance office to apply for a Gendogaku-nintei-sho . I filled a form with the help of a friend and got the card instantly. I presented my card to the hospital on the day of my hospitalization and they charged me only the amount I am was entitled to pay per month . That saved me from paying 30% of total cost upfront and then going through reimbursement process after 4 months. I paid around 90,000 JPY for the surgery including 5 days of hospital stay. Although, 900, 00 JPY is not a small amount, it is nothing for the kind of brilliant medical attention I received. It was far lower that what I would have paid in other countries.
Overall, my experience with the Japanese medical system was quite a pleasant one without much hiccups and I was impressed by the amount of attention of the medical professionals.
Share your thoughts, questions or experiences with me on the Japanese medical system by commenting below.