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By: Debbie Howard


Japan is traditionally a “push” market, with products pumped through distribution channels and consumers having little “pull” for changing what is offered. With a more active and wary consumer having emerged from the economic hardships of the 90s and early 2000s, however, companies have begun to listen more carefully as competition has heightened and consumers flex their muscles.

One of the last domains where the Japanese consumer has not had a voice is in the arena of healthcare, but all that is beginning to change with what might be called “the rise of the informed patient.” While the evidence is primarily anecdotal, when viewed in total it is clear that Japanese patients are indeed becoming less passive and more self-responsible as regards their healthcare. The convergence of several key factors is driving the development of this more assertive and informed patient:

· With increased and further increasing co-payments, patients now pay more for healthcare;

· With increased information via the Internet and patient groups, consumers have access to more (and better) information; and

· With increased media vigilance regarding hospital “medical mistakes” and related topics, patients have a heightened awareness of the failings of the current system.

As a result, Japanese patients are beginning to place demands on the medical system in terms of both information and options, an important development for healthcare providers considering the sheer demographic challenge presented by the rapid aging of Japan.

While high-profile scandals at medical institutions have created generalized fear among consumers and patients, these same fears are also encouraging patients to take actions that have previously been unheard of in Japan, including seeking out information via the Internet, sharing information with other patients who have similar diseases, and even asking for second opinions. While such behaviors are quite common in the West, they are relatively new for Japanese consumers.

Surveys conducted in 1998 and 2006 by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government found a notable increase in the number of patients who wanted to choose their own treatment rather than leave it up to their Doctor. This same survey showed that the number of those who had seen multiple Doctors for the same illness or symptom had doubled from 2001 to 2006.

The Internet has also played a role in contributing to a more informed patient by providing access to information as well as to other patients via bulletin boards and chat groups. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Government survey, “the Internet” was the fastest growing source for information about healthcare, given by twice as many people in 2006 compared to 1998.

Taking all of this into account, Japanese patients are already reaching out and seeking both information and better healthcare options, and this behavior will expand in the future. Three key areas which offer growth opportunities for services and products are:

· Information systems that “bind” patients to medical institutions (hospitals, clinics, etc.)

· Patient advocacy and patient communications

· Doctor-focused education and information

The tendency toward more informed patients is certainly a positive movement that should contribute to better healthcare delivery in the long term.

Debbie Howard is President of Japan Market Resource Network and Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 8th October 2007

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