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Visiting the Doctor: What to Expect

A trip to the doctor in any foreign country can be a daunting experience.

The following is a list of things to help you overcome any nerves or barriers you may encounter when visiting the Doctor in Japan:

  • You will need to take your Health Insurance Card or hokensho (保険証) with you for every doctor’s visit.
  • On your first visit to any clinic or hospital, you will be required to fill out your details for a Medical Card, or shinsatsu ken (診察券). You will generally need to provide your name, address, phone number, current symptoms, and be able to state any pre-existing conditions or allergies you have, or medication you are currently taking (If possible, take the medication with you). Once you have made one visit and have a medical card for that specific clinic, you can then produce that card every time you visit without the need to fill in your details again.
  • It is common practice in Japan to be asked your symptoms at the reception desk first before seeing the doctor. This is perhaps a somewhat more open approach to what you would expect at a medical center overseas, but you are entitled to describe your symptoms in broad terms, and then give a more detailed description once you are seen by the doctor.
  • ‘Hospital’, or byouin (病院), is a catch-all term for any place that provides medical treatment, not only a place for the seriously ill. If colleagues suggest you go to a hospital for your cough, they probably mean a local doctor’s clinic.
  • No matter how well you know your body, or how much faith you put in the research you have done via the Internet, telling the doctor what you have and asking for a specific medication may not go over well. If you don’t agree with the diagnosis, you should perhaps seek a second opinion.
  • The concept of privacy can be hard to come by. Consultation rarely takes place in a private room and if it does, it’s not uncommon to be within earshot of the front desk and lobby. If you would prefer anonymity, it may be best to seek medical attention in a clinic or hospital outside of your local area.
  • At least one nurse is required by law to be in the room during your consultation.
  • Chest x-rays and other seemingly unrelated tests are sometimes done as a matter of procedure.
  • Prepare a list of relevant medical terms in Japanese. Many useful resources are available online. You could also ask a Japanese-speaking friend to come with you or write down relevant vocabulary before you go.
  • Often, you will be prescribed a number of different medications. If you have been able to describe your symptoms to the doctor, then the prescription will likely be as effective as any medication from your own country. However, Japanese doses are generally not as strong as overseas medication.
  • Prescriptions are filled at the hospital’s on-site pharmacy. Some medicine, such as antibiotics, cannot be prescribed for more than two weeks at a time, and you may therefore need successive visits until you have recovered.