Bad Bad Medicine: Doctors in Japan

Japanese Doctors - A Class of their ownWe have explored on stippy how interesting it can be to call an ambulance in Japan, but have you ever had one of those crazy “only in Japan” experiences at the hospital?

Just the week before last I was hit with a mysterious sort of virus that had gone through our office. I battled through a few tough days at work and only on Saturday when the headache was so bad that my eyeballs hurt to move them, did I head to the doctor. My wife recommended a doctor very near our house as they have a naika (内科, the closest thing to a GP, which don’t really exist in Japan, because patients have to refer themselves to a specialist) unit that seemed appropriate. So off I went thinking the hurting eyes may have been related to my wicked hay fever and constant use of nose sprays.

After a fairly long wait with all the sick oldies and runny nosed kids, I was taken through to see the Doc. I had filled out the paperwork explaining what was wrong with me and had the hay fever medication with me. The Doctor didn’t seem to take much interest in my explanation or the hay fever stuff and just asked me if my stomach hurt, if my throat hurt, if my head hurt and got me to poke my tongue out and say “ahh”. With my answers of “no”, “no”, “yes” and “ahhh”, he confirmed, “well it is not a cold”, and proceeded to write out a prescription for pain killers, adding that if it got worse I should go see a specialist at the big hospital down the road. The whole visit took around 30 minutes of which a whopping 2-3 minutes was in the actual Doctor’s office getting checked.

I threw his prescription in the rubbish and stuck with my trusty Bufferin, letting my wife “have it” with a morning of complaints about what a complete waste the stupidly expensive health insurance that we pay is. A whopping chunk of change goes out every month to cover the kids and her. I pretty much never see a Doctor unless the proverbial hits the fan health wise and my little morning trip highlighted just how wasteful this was.

My Doctor in JapanIn fact the only other Doctor experiences I have had in my neighbourhood have been so bad they border on ridiculous. I was told to have an X-Ray for what was a spider bite a few years ago. Also, last year I got an ear infection while in Thailand that necessitated me to stay in Bangkok for 5 days as flying could have ruptured my ear drum. The infection came from the bad water going up my nose apparently and I was in a weakened state after eating not only one but two mostly raw pork steaks at the buffet. My bad, as it was dark and it was a wedding, so I stupidly mistook the piggy for moo cow. Anyway, if I thought the experience in the Thai hospitals was trippy, things got worse back in Japan.

The upshot was that nothing the Thai doctors gave me worked. They actually made me sicker as one of the quacks gave me one medication that reacted with the other. Once home, I headed down to the trusty Akasaka clinic (run by a “real” gaijin doctor) and explained the situation. Like the doctors in Bangkok, Doctor Jerry said the ear was perfectly clean but swelling in the middle ear was causing the pain. Things were bad and he prescribed some antibiotics and pain killers (very much needed). I came back every few days and he had to give me a few different treatments as the infection was not yet abating. After 3 weeks of being extremely grumpy to the crew at the office and in a lot of pain, I succumbed to the pressure of my mother in law and went down to the local Ear-Nose-Throat specialist or Jibika (耳鼻科). Much the same as my ‘flu experience the other day, I filled out the forms, explaining what I had, how long I had it and that I was on some serious medication, taking it with me. I also told them that I had been to three or four other doctors who all said that it my ear was “infected”.

Japanese Doctors - A Class of their ownThey ignored all that and lay me down on a bed to inspect the ear. A few rudimentary pokes in the ear and the doctor said he couldn’t see anything so he would have to do some cleaning. I thought this didn’t sound right but within a flash he was jamming some suction device into the already painful ear and trying to suck out whatever he thought was blocking his view. Of course this suction device, like the ones you have at the dentist to suck out excess saliva, latched on to the swollen bits and the nerves in my ear just screamed! My natural reaction was to swing my arm and get the guy off me, yelling in Japanese that it was not a dirty ear (!!!!) and that three other doctors said it was swollen (中耳炎ではれている!). He calmed me down, explained that everything was going to be okay, and proceeded to put that torture device back in my ear. I again pushed him off and kicked out in agony. Incredibly, next he called over 3-4 nurses to hold my legs and arms. I was lying there in intense agony and actually started laughing as the whole situation seemed so absurd. There were a whole load of patients just sitting there in silence as if nothing funny was happening at all. Most were elderly folks who all ignored the gaijin. To them it was probably a case of silly gaijin man not following the rules. The ones that say you should ignore intense pain and do whatever the good doctor says. Whilst flailing about, I was also trying desperately to control myself so I did not end up accidentally hurting the lunatic holding the suction device.

I did get him to stop and I left in a comical state of mind both cursing and laughing at the same time. I bumped into my mother in law as she was visiting our house and I let her “have it” with what I thought of her “Jibika”. At a lunch meeting with the bosses that day, I felt a liquid dribbling down my neck from my ear and realized it was that clear sort of blood that you get in cuts and the like. I pulled the cotton wool out my ear and poked my finger in to find that the wad thing (like a tampon) was completely soaked in blood and I pulled it out in a kind of state of semi-shock. Disgustingly I admit, I put it on the empty dessert plate, kind of wondering what was going on. Kind of funny, though gross, as my boss freaked out thinking it was actually ear or brain tissue. I headed straight back to Doctor Jerry and explained the situation. The suction treatment had of course torn the membrane on the swelling and all the blood, pus and the like was leaking out. Lovely. Charming smell too.

Anyway, the painful suction treatment sped up the process of getting the swelling down but potentially would leave a scar that could mildly effect my hearing in future. It didn’t in the end but the experience was mind blowing. Unbelievable. Unlike the Jibika, Doctor Jerry was extremely professional and I would highly recommend him. My bad for taking the advice of the mother in law. Damn it. Never again. Her “Jibika” dished out some bad, bad medicine.

Does anyone have a good story to tell about visiting a Japanese doctor?

54 thoughts on “Bad Bad Medicine: Doctors in Japan”

  1. Japanese medical/pharmacological system is one of the best in the world.
    Ignorant people without medical education still gonna hate though.

  2. wow what a story! what bothers me the most is that you didn’t take it further though; where’s the medical malpractice enquiry? in my own personal experince i’ve found it to be very hit-and-miss, i’d say about 50/50 between proper analytical doctors and ‘doctors’ who did the course decades ago (and passed no matter what, it’s impossible to fail at a japanese university) and are still blissfully unaware how wrong they are because nobody ever points out their mistakes. once actually i did a bit of an experiment and went to 4 different doctors over 2 days. i got 4 completely different diagnoses, and 3 of them even prescribed be the exact same medication (3 different ones even!) for these various conclusions.

    to our japan friends who’ve commented above that the japanese system is great, i’d like to ask them how all doctors can possibly be so good when even the most terrible doctor cannot fail his university course? i’d also like to point out that the reason for the high average lifespan in japan is because of fewer fatal road accidents, less violent crime, and people who cheat the pension system by not reporting their relatives’ deaths so they can keep the money.

    i really love japan and it’s disappointing to see so much potential wasted by blindly following social conventions that cause harm.

  3. Nothing so disastrous as you, but my experience with Japanese doctors has not at all been positive.

    The first time I ever went to the doctor, I had a very soar throat, which was my own fault for using pain killers so I could avoid taking a day off work. I could hardly speak when I went to see him. I had a voice like someone who had had throat cancer. After poking at my stomach and finally looking down my throat he finally said “特に問題ないです”.

    The lack of a bedside manner tradition was a real shock for me when I came here, but I’ve learned not to expect it. There are some seriously bad doctors here, but thankfully my girlfriend is very good at finding the good ones. It’s very hard to get used to but if you’re in Japan long time, what can you do?

  4. My friend had a herniated disk in her back and the doctors here insisted that it was her period despite her not being on hers. They took XRays after she begged them to, but still nothing. After a few more agonizing weeks of her being completely immobile, they recommended a hot rock treatment in lieu of any actual medicine or treatment.

    No, really, they just put hot rocks on her spine.

    It wasn’t until they took her to a big name hospital somewhere closer to Kyoto that a doctor realized what it was. However, she had to be medevaced out of Japan because “we don’t have any specialists here who can do the surgery.”

    So she had to return to America to get treatment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *