Calling an Ambulance in Japan

It felt fast but a scooter overtook usJust this past long weekend, I had the misfortune of having to call an ambulance in Japan for my girlfriend, who began writhing in pain and clutching her abdomen – all the while letting rip some of the most blood-curdling screams I had ever heard. After 2 minutes of this I made the decision to phone an ambulance for the first time since coming to Japan – Anyway, I got the number wrong

After ringing 110, the policewoman answering kindly told me to hang up and dial the number for the ambulance and fire service. Slightly panicked, I hung up without asking for the magical ambulance number. But I had been here for 12 years and I, of course, know everything about Japan. So I went ahead and called 116, trying to block out the screams coming from across the room. Now, the ladies answering the phones at the 116 NTT call centre are usually quite nice and don’t really deserve a lot of the crap they get from random guys ringing up. They certainly didn’t deserve the stream of abuse they got from me, especially since their job description probably has very little to do with dispatching ambulances!

Right then, my girlfriend managed to whimper through her agony the number “nine” – “Kyu! kyu dayo!”. The incredulous look of disbelief on her face said it all. So I quickly dialed 119 and got an operator who asked if I needed an ambulance or fire truck. I was assured they were on their way and that the ambulance driver would call me when they were about to arrive. I had given my mobile number, so was anxiously waiting for the driver to call with my phone clutched to my chest.

Florescent ping-pong bats...well almostLittle did I know that the call I would receive would be from a PHS. Now, everyone knows PHS phones are notorious for cutting out when in moving vehicles. And this time was no exception, not that I could hear the guy that well over the siren anyway. But after receiving four calls and having as many cutting out, I realized he wanted me to stand outside my building to guide the ambulance in. I was about to grab my florescent ping-pong bats to wave but decided humour was not a priority at this time.

The ambulance arrived. To their credit, they got to my place within 10 minutes. A better time than most major cities including London and New York. A souped-up Toyota Hiace van was sitting in front of my place, lights all flickering. One problem though, no one was getting out. I banged on the window and beckoned the helmet-clad passenger to get out. It was then I realized he had been filling out some paper work. Yep, this is definitely Japan. I resigned myself to the fact that they would help my girlfriend once the forms had been filled out in triplicate.

Helmet clad guys carrying the stretcherPresently, they saw my girlfriend, barked loud aggressive questions at her then latched her into a stretcher. We were then in the ambulance together and my girlfriend had started to feel better. The aspirin had started to kick in. It was a good thing she was feeling better, because what happened next was just ridiculous. They asked me which hospital to go to. I told the driver the name of the nearest hospital. He rang it and was promptly turned down, told to try somewhere else. The next five hospitals he rang refused to treat my girlfriend, saying they were too busy. Finally, over 30 minutes later, we were on our way to a university hospital half way across town.

Lots of cool stuff inside, but I thought there should be more buttons and flashing lightsThe drive there was something quite spiritual. In the middle of Tokyo, I was amazed how drivers refuse to make way for an ambulance. We had to wait a good five minutes at the traffic lights while cars sped across the intersection blocking our path. But once moving, gee, did we get some speed! I never thought ambulances in Japan went all that fast, so I secretly thought we were lucky enough to get a real special driver. That was until we were overtaken by a delivery truck speeding past us, and then a scooter. Still, it was a buzz when we switched over to the other lane and barged our way through opposing traffic.

We arrived at the hospital safely and my girlfriend was OK. The ambulance guys gave me a curt nod and walked off, ready to save more lives…

Has anybody else had a bad experience with something like this in Japan? Any comments are most welcome!

27 thoughts on “Calling an Ambulance in Japan”

  1. A good friend of mine back home is a paramedic, and has been for 5 or 6 years now. He is now quite senior, with a masters in Nursing, he is also a qualified mid-wife (mid-person?) and can do just about anything that doctors can do (apart from surgery) and is an extremely highly skilled driver, able to scream along safely with the pressure of dying patients in the back. This is the norm for Paramedics in Australia.

    In Japan however, it seems to be a very different story. You get a nice sleek looking Ambulance, but that is where the story ends. The ossan’s are not qualified to do any 医療行為 (medical assistance) and only have the same training as 介護福祉士 (people who nurse old people – training is senmon gakko level). They can not administer any prescription drugs, let alone give shots of adrenalin, and are not allowed to to mouth-to-mouth on patients either! They are merely drivers, and after reading the article above, they dont seem to good at that either!

    And, what is the story with asking you which hospital to go to, and being refused by some hospitals! That is the last f’ing question a suffering patient wants to hear!! This place drives you nutty sometimes.

  2. Wow, glad it was nothing life threatening. That’s bullshit about hospitals not being able to treat you cos they’re too ‘busy’.

    Reminds me though, everytime I caught a taxi with my wife and saw an ambulance dawdling by in the opposite direction, I would always comment to my wife: ‘If you want to get to a hospital in hurry take a taxi!’ Certainly seems that I’m right!

  3. I had an almost identical experience as Pink but unfortunateley the pain didnt stop and the girlfriend had to be restrained to stop ripping the drips n things out of her arms….the first hospital was full and we ended up somehwere still relatively close ,thankfully. I guess we got off lucky as I have seen in the news a few weeks back that a woman was turned down from 18 different hospitals while in labour and actually died in the process for lack of emergency treatment….

  4. Thanks for your concern guys. I guess when you have an emergency response system that is an attempt of a carbon copy of the West with persistent Japanese bureaucracy and underlying inefficiency you get people dying in ambulances parked in front of the scene of an accident with nowhere to go. I agree with Michael that a taxi is a better option. But you are screwed if the patient is not well enough to walk and needs a stretcher. Oh well, these are the risks we take living in Japan.

  5. Well, at least they dont charge for the ambulance ride like back home….at 2 times a week, the california county ambulance rides were costing me a sore arm and a crook leg….now i get lots of TLC and a perve at a nurse without having to go to the germ infested akihabara…

  6. Taxis are not that a good idea. I took a friend of mine to the nearest hospital (the Kyoto University Hospital if not less), and we were turned down because they were busy and expecting an ambulance… Then we had to look for a second hospital, and then a third, and finally a fourth one. Had we asked for an ambulance instead of a taxi, the paramedics would have just called and called until finding a free hospital…

  7. That brings back memory of my first year in Tokyo. I had a strong chest pain in the middle of the night and ended up catching an ambulance to what I guess was the nearest hospital (I certainly didn’t know any at the time). Besides the fact that the Dr. Never really worked out what was wrong with me, they decided at about 4am that I was fine. I was released onto the street with no shoes, no money and wearing only my pj’s!! I had no idea where the closest station was or even how to get home. At least they give you a ride home in most countries!!

  8. i have concluded its a cultural difference…in order to avoid responsibility of having a patient die in their care ,they figure that if you are alive by the time you got to hospital 5 then your long term chances of walking out healthy and thus paying the bill are higher.
    In the US they are just as happy to treat you at any stage as long as the procedure allows them to surgically remove your wallet…dying is not shameful…

    Pass the parcel is a game that can be enjoyed at any age!

  9. Japan and Doctors. I had twice an ambulance experience with my former girlfriend and lucky it was never that critical but it was eye opening. I lucky knew to call 119 already and so I could skip that part.

    But yes, they wanted my phone number and once they were near my place they called me up, lucky they were already very slow, so no cut offs here.

    But most stunning for was, that they took of their shoes when they entered my place. Plus they all hat their white hard hats on. Must be some regulation.

    The paperwork was done in the ambulance while driving, the first time we were lucky and the next hospital was open, but the second time we had to make a detour to another hospital where they had to call in a doctor and we had to wait some time …

    But to be honest, it could be worse. I am much more scared of the ignorance of the doctors and the 5s per patient rules they seem to have here.

  10. Hello:

    This is the first time i get here…

    it’s very interesting to read this, i can’t believe that kind of service…

    i would like to live in japan, i’m from cancun, mexico… but when i read about the “real” japan’s life… i think about it twice…

    i know now japan is expensive and it’s very difficult to live there… it’s a shame…

  11. Good to hear that I am not alone with my ambulance experience.
    Thanks Giancarlo, I will be sure to keep this in mind. So even if you are in a taxi when you get to a hospital, they can still turn you down? Meaning an ambulance is still the best way to get some medical attention in Japan right?

    Gil: at least you have hospitals to treat you in the U.S., in New Zealand we just have waiting lists…

  12. I wouldn’t be too scared. Seriously. Living here is wonderful.

    It’s just, if you have a medical emergency and you do not speek japanese, you have probably more problems than just the basic ambulance things.

    As horrible as it sounds, it is just annoying for me, because I am not used to that. Last time I wrote a longer document as a homework comparing my country and Japan and I posted it to flickr and so many japaense people were surprised and impressed by this.

    They don’t even think about it, because it is normal for them. Probably they would be confused about the medical service in my country too …

  13. Wow….I’m going to Japan this August for school and reading this stuff is really scary and interesting. I’m gonna make sure I stay healthy.

    Gullevek: What’s the link to the paper you wrote? I’d love to know the Japanese response to your writing.

  14. Greetings,we are able to assist in EMT training across SEA….
    We have established programmes for Malaysia,Singapore,Kuwait,UAE and are talking
    to Indonesia etc…
    Maybe we could help with Japan EMT training….

  15. we need ambulance necessary to gaza in palastine,help us please ,the sitiyuation is very bad ,and you are kind people,thanks

  16. huh, what a hateful comment, nr 18.
    ‘Allah’ means ‘the god’, litteraly, and is the word used by arabic speaking christians as well, for ‘God’.

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  18. It’s good to hear that she was OK. This incident looks like a non-life threaten, so you had better not to use the ambulance. If you call ambulance for non-urgent injury or illness, it is considered as ambulance abuse. So you had better taken the taxi to hospital and it is faster.

    Because of non life threaten illness, the ambulance waited five minutes at the traffic lights.
    People don’t stop for ambulance because of its siren. That hi/lo siren are not as loud as police car or fire truck, right?
    In US, why ambulance can travel faster? Because it rarely use hi/lo siren. They normally use wail, yelp, and air horn as well which are much louder than Japanese siren. That’s why they yell at you through loud speaker.
    Many Japanese drivers believe ambulances are not in hurry.

    Are you sure paramedics asked you which hospitals to go? Usually they choose the hospital for you. Because your girlfriend only had minor illness, they normally take her to a regular hospitals instead of 救急救命センター. Sometimes when regular hospitals are full, then there is no choice, but 救急救命センター.

  19. STOP CALLING THEM AMBULANCE DRIVERS. THEY ARE PARAMEDICS! They receive a HUGE AMOUNT OF TRAINING . They don’t just drive ambulances. What about manual defrbrillation, 12-lead cardiac monitoring, endo-tracheal intubation, cricothyrotimies, surgical airways, needle decompression?????

  20. Ben Asack, you may want to read this article about how ambulance drivers in Japan are really only ambulance drivers. They aren’t allowed to do much at all it appears.

    “ecruited, trained and employed by fire departments of local governments, most Japanese paramedics were previously firefighters, and are still regularly rostered for firefighting duties. This accords with the fire authorities’ traditional view of the primary role of paramedics as being to provide an emergency transport service to hospital. “In principle, paramedics are firefighters,” in the words of a Tokyo Fire Department spokesman.”

  21. I think a lot of this is to do with language barrier. Most ambulance services worldwide require paperwork even in emergencies. In the UK, ambulance personnel fill sheets of paper before arriving at hospital. They will of course perform life saving procedures as well if necessary but they do the same in Japan as well. Regulations on procedures emts in Japan can carry out have changed since that article was written and they do now have advanced life support capabilities. With traffic lights etc, most ambulance services worldwide will drive to hospital following speed and traffic regulations if the patient isn’t in a life threatening condition. Regarding calling up hospitals and getting turned down its just a different system to the U.S. Or UK. Hospitals in Japan tend not to have large emergency departments but most do have emergency facilities. In the U.S. or UK, although emergency departments won’t turn patients away except in rare occasions, there is still a long wait to be seen by a triage nurse and an even longer wait to be seen by a doctor and there are stories of patients dieing during that time. In Japan, ambulance crews will call hospitals to ask if they can take an emergency patient but once they arrive at a hospital they are seen almost immediately by a doctor.

  22. Although there are some large emergency departments dotted around the country which have full emergency capabilities such as emergency surgery, major trauma, major incident management etc.

  23. I see a shit ton of people complaining about ambulances being slow taxis and all this other bullshit, but hey, I work in EMS. How’s it going? Not only do we believe PT care on a moving vehicle and on scene, but we do our DAMNED best to get you where you need to go. Its more or less the dumbasses who drive on the roads who won’t follow the law and move over that cause the real issues. And let me tell you, if you are actually in extreme danger and we dont think we can get you there fast enough by ground, we put you it a chopper and get you the care you need. I hope none of you people complaining have to call 911 anytime soon. Have a nice day.

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