Going to the hospital in Japan can be daunting, even with a friend to help you. If you suffer from a long-term condition, this is especially true. I know this first-hand.
I was never blessed with a good constitution. Add in a rare genetic heart condition and chronic digestive problems, and you have someone who has enough Japanese hospital cards to fill a small trading card binder. Over the years, these basic rules have helped me deal with the frustrations and potential dangers I have faced in Japanese hospitals.
1. Know where to go.
There are very few general practitioners in Japan. Small clinics cover most basic illnesses, but many lack in-depth diagnostic tools and cannot provide serious trauma care. I normally go directly to a hospital if my condition is worse than a cold. It’s very discouraging to go to a clinic and wait for an hour, only to be told you need to go elsewhere. Sometimes even a big hospital won’t have the resources to help you if you need a specialist for a rare condition. In that case, you will need a referral.
Hospitals are separated into departments, and you will need to stop at the front desk to check in, whether you know where you are going or not. If you aren’t sure, tell the staff about your problem, and they will direct you to the department you need. If you need multiple departments, they will tell you where to go first.
If you don’t need immediate care, you will have to wait. Sometimes you will be given a number and told to wait until it is called or displayed on a monitor. If you have multiple departments you need to visit, you will need to follow the directions given to you at the front desk. If you are ever confused about where you need to go or what you need to do, always ask.
In the past, I have waited outside one department, only to discover that I should have been somewhere else. These incidents are a waste of time and should be avoided to make sure you get the care you need as soon as possible.
2. Don’t panic or get upset… unless necessary.
Panicking is rarely helpful for anything. You may know what is wrong with you, and you may even need to alert the doctors to other conditions you have, but the doctors and staff are not likely to work with you if you are in a frenzied state. Even if the nurse spills your blood vials or inserts your IV incorrectly, try not to lose your cool.
Sometimes healthcare workers make mistakes and don’t notice. If something is wrong, make the problem known. I remember two minor surgeries where I wasn’t given enough, or in one case any, anaesthetic. In both cases, screaming effectively solved the problem. That’s not to say that this happens often. Just be prepared to communicate on any level necessary to make sure you get the care you need.
3. Be vocal.
Make sure your doctor knows of your conditions or allergies, even if you already wrote the information down on your intake form and told 4 different staff people. Even if you have a medical alert bracelet written in Japanese, make sure you state the information verbally or have a friend do it for you. The bracelets are not universal here, and few healthcare workers know to look for them.
It sounds silly to be so redundant, but the reality is not silly at all. Doctors sometimes change shifts, and the doctor who finally treats you may have only had a quick glance at your file before passing judgement on your condition. Sometimes the doctor has already decided on a course of action prior to talking with you.
I once had a doctor who, from the moment I walked into his exam room, was convinced I needed an upper GI endoscopy. I refused the procedure based on already knowing my issues were related to a chronic problem. Rather than debate the matter intelligently, the doctor laughed at me, as if a talking dog had refused a veterinarian’s procedure. Like a petulant child, I was given time to think it over. Luckily, that doctor’s shift ended and the next doctor concurred with me based on his assessment of my medical history and the issues I was having.
While situations like mine are uncommon, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You may not know your condition as well as I know mine, but don’t be afraid to ask the doctor why he or she wants to do certain tests. If they can’t give you a good reason, then you may want to consider seeing another doctor and weighing all of your options. While doctors here are not used to patients questioning them, it’s better to break with decorum than suffer physically or financially.
4. Check everything.
I have migraines. I also have a rare heart condition. While these two things sound completely unrelated, certain migraine medicines could complicate my heart condition. I told both my migraine doctor and the pharmacist this and was assured that there would be no problems.
Being very careful, I checked with the manufacturer of the medicine given to me, only to discover that people with my condition shouldn’t take it. I called my heart specialist at a hospital an hour away. He told me over the phone that my condition was rare and that it wouldn’t be listed in the usual guides. He said it was my duty to check all my medications myself.
While I would argue that I don’t have an appropriate degree for the task, I agree that my health should be my concern and it’s up to me to take care of myself. Armed with this knowledge, I hope you can do the same.