What to Expect When Seeing a Doctor in Tokyo: A Tadaima Japan Roundtable Discussion

When talking to people who are thinking about moving to Japan, I’m often asked about the country’s healthcare system. A trip to a clinic or hospital in your own country, using your own language, can be stressful enough, so it’s only natural to wonder about doing so abroad.

This casual roundtable discussion, the second in a series of three, will give you a few perspectives on what to expect and tips to make your inevitable trip to a healthcare provider go more smoothly.

2019-11-08   Life and Manners in Japan, Tokyo,

Know your clinic and be prepared to arrive early

David: I can only speak from my experience, but during the hay fever season, the ear, nose, and throat clinics tend to get very crowded. Everyone is experiencing the same problem at the same time, so be prepared to wait for over an hour if you just show up without an appointment. You may think that you are going to beat the crowds by arriving at the clinic right when it opens, but you still might end up being something like number 28 in line.

Amelie: Yes, everyone arrives early…

David: For example, even though the doctor doesn’t start until 9 a.m., the clinic may actually open earlier. Patients come in and get their names on the waiting list. Some clinics will make arrangements to call patients on their cell phone so they can go to work or run errands and come back when they receive a call for their appointment. I thought that was unfair [laughs]! How do you find out about that system before your first visit? So before you head to a clinic, be sure to find out if there’s a difference between when the doors open and when the doctor starts seeing patients.

Tamon: I should also say that we have a lot of elderly people who need surgery or treatment for pain. This makes the waiting list long. Newer clinics and hospitals have separate facilities for examinations and treatment, but at very old clinics, everything is done in the same place. So, again, the waiting list can be pretty long. If you suspect your local clinic is like this, you should definitely give them a call before you go there.

A typical Tokyo neighborhood clinic

The privacy paradox

Amelie: I just remembered something. Typically, Japanese people are very careful about privacy and privacy policies. But when you go to the doctor, you fill out your paperwork, give it to the nurse, and oftentimes the nurse will read off all of the problems that you are having in front of the other patients waiting with you. This is unusual for me because in France, health matters are only discussed with the doctor where no one else can hear the conversation.

David: I had the same experience at the ear, nose, and throat clinic. I say this about one particular clinic, and I’m not sure if it applies to all clinics. I think you’ll have more privacy at more modern clinics.
The older, neighborhood clinics often have one big room where they are simultaneously treating different people. For example, I was doing some breathing tests and while I was in the chair discussing symptoms, there were three or four other people in the same room. They could hear everything. So, I thought that was really odd.

Amelie: I had a similar experience at the eye doctor as well.

Anthony: So, Tamon, what are your thoughts on this?

Tamon: It’s just the Japanese way [laughs]. And we typically don’t give detailed symptom descriptions—just something like, “So you have a headache?”

Amelie: It’s still very strange to me. I don’t know about the U.S., but in France we’re very strict. Other patients have no idea why you are at the clinic.

Anthony: It’s the same in America. Health matters are generally treated discretely.

Bedside manners

David: Speaking of describing symptoms and talking with a doctor in general, I find that the bedside manners are different than what I’m used to. In Europe, you feel like there’s plenty of consultation. You can expect the doctor to talk to you a lot. The doctor will tell you everything and reassure you. There’s an element of psychology to the experience—the doctor’s help you worry less.

Here in Tokyo, I often see a sports doctor and, on one particular visit, I bumped into another non-Japanese patient. It was his first time there, so he came to me and said, “What do you think of the doctor? I came all the way from Saitama and the consultation was so short—he told me almost nothing.”

I replied, “Yeah, he doesn’t say much.” He’s just really quick and doesn’t give any reassurance.

So my advice to our readers is that you have to be prepared to ask questions. You have to think about what you want to get out of your session with the doctor. Push for the information that you need with questions like, “What should I do? How long will it take? What’s the next step?”

Amelie: I had a similar experience, but it depends on the doctor. Some will explain a bit more.

But, I remember when I had stomach problems several years ago. I went to the doctor, he looked at me, and then he just said, “OK, just take this for one week.” That’s all! I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know why I was sick. Maybe it was because the place was crowded, but I didn’t feel the doctor was listening to me very much.

Anthony: This is very interesting because I haven’t had this kind of experience. I usually do get some kind of explanation.

David: Which doctor do you go to? [laughs]

Anthony: Actually, I want to talk about that in our next article, but before that let me wrap this up by fact checking with Tamon.

Tamon: Actually, I do have an interesting point to share. Once I filled out a questionnaire before the consultation, and one of the questions was about my educational history.

The explanation you receive might be catered to your education level. If you’re highly educated, a doctor may give you a very detailed explanation. However, if the doctor doesn’t think you’ll understand the details, he’ll keep things simple and just tell you to take the medicine.

This roundtable discussion is the second part of a three-part series on healthcare in Japan. To read the other articles in the series, click on the links below:

What You Should Know Before Visiting a Dentist in Tokyo: A Tadaima Japan Roundtable Discussion

How to Find the Right Doctor for You in Tokyo: A Tadaima Japan Roundtable Discussion

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.