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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Doctor shortage gives patients runaround

Staff writer

The shortage of hospital doctors is taking its toll on the people who can least afford it: those in need of immediate medical attention.

News photo
Dr. Naoshi Tamura explains a treatment plan to a patient at Ota Hospital in Tokyo on Feb. 14. AKEMI NAKAMURA PHOTO

In fact, thousands of sick people nationwide being transported to hospitals by ambulance have been turned away for treatment.

According to a survey by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, there were 14,387 cases last year in which seriously ill patients in ambulances were turned away by institutions more than three times before finally being accepted.

In one case, it took ambulance personnel 50 tries to find a place willing to take the patient. In 65 cases, patients had to wait more than 2 1/2 hours at the scene before leaving for a hospital.

The survey found that the medical institutions complained of not having adequate facilities, equipment or medical staff to treat emergency patients.

It is imperative that the government take immediate steps to resolve this crisis, said Hideyuki Kaide, director of the fire agency's ambulance service planning office.

As the population ages, the weaker segment of society will naturally increase, as will the calls for ambulances, he said.

"Ordinary people don't understand (what's going on with their bodies) when they feel sick, or have chest pains," Kaide pointed out. "If (they) enter a medical institution quickly, doctors can see them and make a diagnosis."

However, a health ministry official argued that the current problem can be partly attributed to the "abuse" of ambulances.

According to the fire agency, ambulances transported around 4.89 million patients in 2006, up about 51 percent from a decade earlier.

The population of people aged 65 or older increased 40 percent in the last decade, but ambulance patients in that age group jumped 108 percent, according to the health ministry.

"I do not think elderly people have become that weak in just over 10 years," said Toshinobu Sato, director of guidance of the medical service division at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Sato said it is necessary to examine whether all the requests for ambulances are reasonable, because the nation's medical-care system "cannot endure such a (drastic) demand increase."

To cope with rising demand, the health ministry is trying to reduce the number of patients transported to emergency rooms.

For instance, it encourages stationing clinic doctors at emergency medical centers to provide first aid to patients at night and on holidays because some may not require hospitalization.

In addition, the government has set up phone hotlines for pediatricians or nurses to advise parents with small children who suddenly fall ill at night or suffer minor injuries, according to the ministry.

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