Japan’s e-Health Era Left In the Waiting Room

Information technology has reshaped society in the past decade. People are constantly connected through their mobile devices and have access to endless amounts of information through the Internet. In fact, according to Internet World Stats, over 40% of the world’s population, about three billion people, currently has access to the Internet and the number is constantly growing.

Leading IT innovators such as Facebook, Apple, and Google have reconceptulized the way in which we obtain information, communicate, and go about our daily lives. Most of our actions have been interconnected with the web through growing technologies like the Cloud and the Internet of Things.

Policy implementation to catalyze the expansion of these technologies has been slow.

Yet, some areas of our lives have not been affected to the same extent by the expansion of IT, such as medicine.

Genetic data has allowed doctors to analyze patterns in human genes to determine what diseases a patient is vulnerable to before the patient gets sick. 3D printing has allowed for doctors to make custom body parts, such as bones or blood vessels, in order to exactly fit a patient’s unique needs. Advanced sensors have allowed doctors to keep track of patient’s rehabilitation treatments, exercise patterns, diet, and more, regardless of the location of the patient, in order to offer more effective, concrete advice.

But whatever the benefits and the potential impact these forms of medical IT may have, policy implementation to catalyze the expansion of these technologies has been slow all over the world, some countries more than others.

Singapore has been recognized as one of the leaders in incorporating ICT into medicine. Since 2012, Singapore has been the one of the few countries that has successfully implemented a national electronic health record (NEHR) system that is integrated with various stakeholders that associate with the health of an individual. This branches from primary care providers like polyclinics to long-term care providers such as nursing homes.

The results of the NEHR has allowed for more timely updates to a patient’s medical information in order to provide the best treatment options and also for avoiding unnecessary treatments and tests that can lower costs for patients.

The US has followed Singapore’s example by passing with the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009, which was the first national attempt in the US to support the widespread adoption of EHR. As a result, by August 2012, 54% of professionals adopted EHRs and have practiced meaningful use, defined by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

What about Japan?

In 2007, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare introduced the Cloud Design for the Digitizing of Medicine, Health, Nursing, and Welfare report to address the urgency and importance of the implementation of medical IT. With the number of deaths overriding the number of births in a steadily aging society, Japan recognized that the country’s medical infrastructure was an important part of the society.

Yet, no recent strategy has been introduced that outlines the role of the national government in promoting the incorporation of IT in the field of medicine and health.

As of 2012, over 50% of large hospitals with over 400 beds have adopted EMRs. Yet only 13% of clinics with 20 to 199 beds and 27% of hospitals with 200 to 399 beds have adopted the use of EMRs. On top of this, the EMR system is not a national system and therefore does not provide the benefits of a shared platform like that in Singapore.

Japanese policy makers, businesses, and medical professionals must work to raise the bar in the utilization of IT in medicine.

Just as the US implemented the HITECH Act and the Ministry of Health Holdings (MOHH), the holding company of Singapore’s public healthcare assets, developed the NEHR, Japan must find a way to implement such a NEMR or NEHR system.

In addition to implementation, with the expansion of advanced technologies and the current aging society in Japan, where a third of the country is over 60 years old, it is essential for the government to implement greater use of medical IT in Japan.

Japan must play an active role in the next steps in the eHealth era. The digitization of records allows greater efficiency and organization along with the capacity for more data and information. Japan must look towards introducing new policies that will introduce the new wave of medical IT in our society.

Along with a stable and secure NEHR, the records must also include genetic data, which will increase the quality of care for the patient and introduce greater potential for preventive care, especially for the elderly generation. Policies must also encourage the use of technologies such as 3D printing and sensors to introduce new opportunities for at-home medical care, which will as a result, lower medical costs for elderly patients.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US, is working to develop policies to regulate new medical technology such as 3D printing. Japan must take part in the discussion to encourage not only greater use of new technology, but also to promote further collaboration in research and innovation.

Japanese policy makers, businesses, and medical professionals must work to raise the bar in the utilization of IT in medicine. With the upcoming release of the national ID number, the growing senior population, and the rise of new medical technology, Japan has no choice but to become the next leader in the adoption of medical IT. Based on the role and success of the Japanese government, Japan will able to set an example in growing areas of medical concern, including aging societies, and the privacy and security of medical information in the digital age.