TOKYO -- Due to a rapidly aging population and diminishing number of children, Japan is experiencing a chronic labor shortage in the nursing care industry and is looking to information technology and foreign workers to fill the gap.
The problem is so severe that the government estimates the country will lack 370,000 skilled personnel in the field in fiscal 2025.
Obstacles abound, but solutions are slowly cropping up.
"I will take you to the bathroom at 1 p.m. as this shows nothing abnormal," said Takako Shiraishi, a nursing care worker at Sompo Care Laviere Saginomiya, a life-care home in Tokyo's Nerima Ward, assessing data shown on a device attached to a 91-year-old female resident's waist. The device, called DFree, checks the amount of urine in the bladder.
Sompo Care Laviere Saginomiya, operated by leading nursing care service provider Sompo Care Next, began using the wearable bowel movement and urination predictor for all 18 residents in June 2016.
Using DFree has changed the way caregivers work. "We used to take each resident to the bathroom 10 to 12 times a day to prevent uncontrolled urination," Shiraishi said. "That number has been roughly cut in half."
More face time
DFree uses ultrasonic waves to determine how full the bladder is. When the amount exceeds a set level, terminals carried by care workers beep. In addition, data is accumulated to make it possible to predict when each resident needs to use the bathroom.
In the past, there were cases when residents did not urinate even though they were taken to the bathroom or did so before reaching the toilet.
The introduction of DFree has not only reduced the caregivers' workload, but also given residents more peace of mind.
Starting with Laviere Saginomiya, Sompo Care Next plans to complete the introduction of DFree at all of its nearly 120 nursing care homes across Japan by mid-September.
Providing nursing care is difficult work. Operators often fail to receive enough applications when hiring, while turnover among workers is high.
Sompo Care Next and other service providers have been struggling to secure workers and are hoping that the use of IT to reduce workloads will change the image of nursing care work and appeal to new employees.
For example, the company also makes use of tablet computers to store data about residents so the staff can readily check information about each of them.
"The use of IT has cut our workload and given us more time to communicate with residents and upgrade recreation activities," Shiraishi said, reflecting Sompo Care Next's plan to reduce the attrition rate of its workers and attract more applicants for jobs by means of IT.
At Ai no Ie Group Home Omiyakushihiki, a nursing care home in the city of Saitama just north of Tokyo, Lilibeth Hattori, a 45-year-old Filipino woman married to a Japanese man, provides oral care services to residents.
The home is run by Medical Care Service. The company began hiring Filipinos with resident status in Japan as staff in 2011. In addition to Hattori, there are seven other employees from the Philippines.
These foreign workers are helping nursing care providers overcome the acute labor shortage and contribute to residents' well-being.
Shigeru Tokutake, head of Ai no Ie, said Hattori has "brightened the atmosphere in the home."
Japan will begin accepting foreign technical trainees in the nursing care services field starting in November. MCS plans to accept tens of them.
But there are cultural issues that need to be addressed.
For instance, in Japan, being punctual is an essential trait for all workers, whereas in the Philippines there is a looser approach to the concept. Julieta Tamura, a Filipino woman working as an instructor for Hattori and other Philippine workers at MCS, said educating prospective employees about such cultural differences is necessary.
MCS holds a monthly class to teach the Japanese language and culture to Philippine workers.
MCS also employs foreign staff as it prepares to advance into overseas markets. The company opened its first home abroad in Nantong, China, in December 2014 and plans to open another in Malaysia in September.
"We need English-speaking staff members for our business expansion into Asia," said Kyotaro Nakamoto, deputy chief of MCS's section in charge of overseas operations. To that end, "We are planning to have the Filipinos working at facilities in Japan become instructors," Nakamoto said.