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

In this third article in our health care roundtable series, my colleagues and I share more specific details about our individual experiences with the Japanese healthcare system in Tokyo. Once again, I’m joined by Amelie, originally hailing from France, David from Belgium, and Tamon, born here in Japan. In this casual chat, we talk about finding healthcare in English (including the potential pitfalls of doing so), prescription medication, and more.

2019-11-22   Life and Manners in Japan, Tokyo,

Finding health care in English

Anthony: Getting back to David’s question about what doctor I go to, I’d like to tie my answer to language issues and things that will help people who have just moved to Japan. When I arrived in Japan, my Japanese was basic. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable using Japanese for medical or dental treatment. So, I would often go to clinics in or around Roppongi because that part of town is full of expats.

That’s a good strategy until your Japanese improves to a certain level. But you also have to watch out for your budget. Medical clinics are fine, but dental clinics will often try to upsell you on cosmetic procedures that aren’t covered by insurance. They are used to dealing with corporate placement expats who don’t have to worry about costs. So, just be prepared for that.

David: That’s a good point. I experienced that too—not in Roppongi but in Marunouchi, near Tokyo Station. I wanted to go to a doctor, and I didn’t have time to go to the one I usually see. I just looked up the nearest clinic that had English-speaking doctors. It was a brand-new clinic, and it cost a fortune.

It’s amazing that if you go to a neighborhood clinic, you might pay less than 1,000 yen. At this other place, they charged 6,000 yen for a consultation. This was with insurance. So I’m thinking, this is the same health care, but just because the facilities are newer, and the doctor speaks English, you get charged so much more money.

Anthony: Yeah, newcomers should definitely be careful about that sort of thing. Thankfully, once my Japanese improved, I started going to neighborhood clinics just like you two do. I’m not loyal to a particular clinic, though. If I don’t like one, I’ll just keep trying others until I find one that I like.

Amelie: As we mentioned before, if you’re not happy or satisfied with a particular place, don’t hesitate to change.

Clinic hopping vs. the family doctor

David: That reminds me of something I wanted to touch upon. When it comes to local clinics back in Europe, there’s the concept of the family doctor. For instance, in Belgium, I went to the same doctor that I’d been going to since I was a child. Even when I go back, I’ll tend to go to the same clinic because they know me and they have my history.

I did the same thing here in Japan: I found a good clinic and I’ve been going to the same place for 10 years. So it’s easy—the doctor knows me. We have a history and they know what medicines I’ve taken over the years. However, my Japanese friends tend to go to any clinic: for example, whichever clinic is close or whichever clinic is open. They don’t seem to have a family doctor, at least not in Tokyo, not in the city center.

Anthony: I think a lot of our experiences are due to the fact that we live in Tokyo. I imagine that if you live in the countryside, there aren’t as many choices and you’d probably have a family doctor.

David: Tamon, do you go to the same generalist every time, or do you go to several different clinics?

Tamon: I don’t have a general doctor near my house. As a child in Tokyo, there was one in my neighborhood, but that changed after I moved to Kanagawa Prefecture.

Actually… I don’t really go to the doctor, so I don’t know too much about that [laughs]. I just go where my family goes.

Getting back to the topic of pricing, keep in mind that the concept of generic prescription medicine hasn’t really caught on in Japan. There are many places that won’t recommend generic medicine to you. If you want to keep costs down, you should proactively ask for generic drugs. Generics have been rapidly gaining in popularity, but there are still plenty of places that don’t readily offer that option.

Also, if you feel that the doctor prescribes too much medicine, ask if you really need so much.

Amelie: It’s funny because in France, we have a totally different issue—you have to buy the whole box of medicine, even if you might not need that much. In Japan, you’ll get exactly what you need for three days or one week. If you need more, you have to go back to the clinic.

Prescription medication

Anthony: Speaking of medicine, I don’t know about all of you, but my biggest problem is that the medicine I receive usually isn’t strong enough. One time, I went to a hospital for knee pain, and the doctor asked me if I was taking over-the-counter medicine for it. I mentioned one of the popular painkiller brands, and she said, “Just keep taking that—what I’m prescribing isn’t any stronger.”

David: That’s one advantage of finding a doctor that speaks English and has been trained abroad. For example, my neighborhood doctor spent time in the U.S. The first time I visited him was for a cold, and he said, “For my Japanese patients, I would prescribe a gargle, but from a western medicine perspective, I wouldn’t really prescribe this for a cold.” So, I said, “Well, in that case, I don’t need it.”

We often have these discussions about medicine, and it’s nice to be able to do that in English and hear from the perspective of someone who has practiced medicine abroad.

Final thoughts

Anthony: I want to take a moment to say that even though there are many cultural differences, overall, I’m really impressed with how great the national insurance program is and how quickly and affordably you can get procedures done. For example, going back to that knee pain that I mentioned, I was surprised that I was able to get an MRI within a week for about 6,000 yen. I can’t imagine how much that would cost and how long it would take to get that done in the U.S.

In summary, if you can overcome the cultural and systemic differences with a little patience and perseverance, the healthcare system here can be pretty amazing.

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

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

What to Expect When Seeing a Doctor 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.