Lessons Learned from Japan’s Healthcare System

Last week at the Virginia Society for Healthcare Marketing and PR conference, I had the privilege of hearing from a variety of speakers who shared their knowledge on topics ranging from branding and innovation to health care reform and patient engagement. Because I’ve always been a lover of travel and experiencing other cultures, when Juana Quick, president of Queue, gave her presentation on lessons learned while exploring Japan’s healthcare industry, I furiously began taking notes. Although the Japanese appreciate Americans for introducing Facebook and Starbucks to their country, there are a few best practices they could introduce us to when it comes to our health care system.

What’s Best for the Group Comes First

There is a fundamental cultural difference between Japan and the U.S. characterized by a focus on the success of the group over the individual. This principle is near and dear to my heart as it is one of CRT/tanaka’s shared values, so I have seen firsthand the success and collaboration that comes from this practice. For example, in Japan a doctor doesn’t seek an extra certification to improve his own standing but to further contribute to the success of the group. It’s like having aligned incentives as the norm, rather than a strategic goal.

Talk the Talk

In Japan, CEOs are required to have an MD after their name. They assume that if a CEO is a brilliant business person but can’t gain the respect of the physicians by talking their language, then they can’t lead a successful hospital. As marketing and PR professionals, we often speak a different language than our clients. We focus on things like engagement, impressions and reputation while business executives often speak in corporate-eze and the bottom line. As communications professionals, it’s our responsibity to talk the talk of the target audience, whether health care executives, technology experts or food and nutrition professionals. We have to speak their language in order to build credibility and engage with them in a meaningful way.

Stay A While

In the U.S., hospitals are not known for their hospitality when it comes to the duration of a hospital stay. In ironic contrast, Japan’s average length of stay is seven to nine days, which is three to four days more than the average stay in the U.S., yet the cost of health care in Japan is significantly less than that in the U.S. What’s more, their outcomes are better. Once patients are discharged from the hospital, they are called within 24 hours of discharge, one week after discharge and, again, 30 days after discharge. Their longer stays and impeccable discharge procedures lead to lower infection rates and a virtually nonexistent rate of readmissions. In 2008 in the U.S., it was estimated that preventable hospital readmissions cost the health care system $25 billion in wasteful spending. And current laws have recently been passed that tie a hospital’s reimbursement to its readmission rates. Maybe if we focused more attention on quality care and thoughtful follow-up, we would not need new laws and financial incentives to reduce unnecessary readmissions so common in the U.S.

The Ultimate EMR

Imagine walking into the hospital, handing the staff your electronic social security card and having them pull up your entire medical history from the day you were born, regardless of where you sought care. In Japan, this idea of the ultimate electronic medical record is a reality. All of the hospitals and clinics in Japan, whether private or government owned, are connected by a single system, allowing them to share patient information with the click of a mouse. Patients no longer have to rack their brains for the date of their last tetanus shot or bring in a list of all of their medications. And physicians are aware of any ED visits, tests, allergies or procedures that a patient has had, making diagnosis and treatment more timely, more effective and more cost appropriate. Surprisingly, their doctor-to-patient ratio is almost half that of the U.S., but their efficiency is such that patients rarely wait longer than an hour to be seen by a doctor for a non-emergent admission, and in an emergency, patients are seen immediately.

It Really is All About the Patient

Customer service is key in Japan. From the moment you walk into a hospital in Japan to the moment you leave, a staff member escorts you to ensure your visit is exceptional. Managing everything from the lighting and temperature to making sure you receive your medications, the staff are fully focused on the patient experience. Everything from the room décor to the materials handed to you at discharge is impeccable, with every single detail being deliberate and planned. Every patient is treated as a VIP guest. Japanese hospitals would get full credit for patient experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not hating on the U.S. It’s just that if we can leverage what other countries like Japan have done well in health care, why not take advantage of it? As Kelly O’Keefe shared in his branding presentation, it’s often important to step outside of your comfort zone for inspiration. Japan is doing something right in health care, so why not search outside our borders for a little inspiration. Business as usual is not an option if we want to improve health and decrease the rate of health care spending in our country.

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