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Health Care

Japan greenlights online doctor visits as outbreak hits hospitals

Stopgap measure for first-time consultations hamstrung by lagging telemedicine

Hospitals are increasingly at risk of coronavirus outbreaks within their premises. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has lifted restrictions on receiving online medical services as clusters of novel coronavirus cases emerge at health clinics and hospitals.

Starting Monday, doctors were allowed to conduct appointments with first-time patients online or via telephone. Patients will be able to receive prescriptions by mail without a face-to-face exam. These services will be covered by Japan's national health insurance program.

The stopgap measure comes amid a growing risk of coronavirus infection at health centers. Tokyo's Eiju General Hospital reported 184 confirmed cases as of Monday. The hospital is not designated as an infectious disease treatment center, and it did not volunteer to take in coronavirus patients. The same applies to Nakano Egota Hospital, also in Tokyo, which reported 92 infections through Monday.

Considering these developments, online doctor visits have become key to avoiding potential exposure to the disease, both for health care workers and patients.

However, 103 of 250 hospitals surveyed across Japan will not offer telemedicine services either online or by phone, according to information provider Medical Data Vision. At 88%, infrastructure issues were the No. 1 reason, with investment in systems cited in particular.

The slow adoption of telemedicine shows how big the barrier is to digitization in Japan, where cash is still a preferred mode of payment and documents are still printed and faxed widely in the offices.

Among a wider range of health care facilities, only about 1,000 locations had online visits under the national health insurance program, a survey for July 2018 shows, representing less than 1% of the total. In contrast, the Chinese telemedicine app Ping An Good Doctor drew over 300 million registered users prior to the coronavirus epidemic.

"Incoming patients should undergo rigorous PCR tests if they show even slight signs of infection," said Takeshi Terashima, a professor at Tokyo Dental College and an expert in respiratory medicine, speaking of the polymerase chain reaction tests for the coronavirus.

"There are cases overseas where crowded working conditions for medical staff have led to outbreaks inside hospitals," Terashima added. "Government institutions need to properly distribute medical resources."

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