My Japanese Hospital Experience
When traveling to another country, visiting a foreign hospital is never on the “places to see” list. Leave it to me to make that one of my “places to see” in Japan.
Japanese. I don’t speak the language and I definitely can’t read the language. Being sick in another country is NOT fun; however, when you can’t figure out how to fill out a form, yet alone explain your symptoms in another language, it makes being sick even harder.
No one enjoys going to the hospital or urgent care and definitely not in another country. I’ve traveled to almost 30 countries and I've been fortunate to have never been to the hospital or emergency clinic in any foreign country. I’ve definitely been sick in other countries, but with certain symptoms, you know it will pass, so you safely wait to avoid the unknowns of foreign health care. I honestly don’t remember the last time I went to the doctor (besides my Naturopath and Dentist) in the United States. Well, my streak of staying out of foreign hospitals just ended. While in Japan, I had my first foreign hospital experience.
When you know your body and do your best to take care of it, you just feel when something is off. I’m hypersensitive to a lot of things, I have a variety of food allergies and due to suffering from digestive issues after college, I know when I can pass at going to see the doctor or when to go. Honestly, I tend to pass as long as I can, but there’s certain things you know need attention. This visit was not food related.
After getting back from a long weekend trip to Kyoto, I thought my body was tired from all of the walking we did, while I’m active, my body is not used to walking 10-15 miles a day with a backpack. I thought my body was tired from all of the moving and traveling (sitting), but upon doing my normal morning workout on Tuesday morning (PiYo), my body felt off and I felt an intense pain. I knew something was just not right, but I went along with my normal routine.
Later that evening, I decided to take a bath to soothe my achy body. I still felt off and was in pretty extreme pain and chilled to the bone. I started googling symptoms (as most people do...). Then, I started googling how to go to the doctor in Japan. I had no idea of what the process would be, how much it would cost, where a hospital was that I could communicate with in English and how the whole system worked.
It’s different in every country. While I have medical travel insurance (I get a policy to cover me while out of the country EVERY time I leave the country since my health insurance doesn’t cover me outside of the United States) I’ve never had to use it and didn’t know how it worked.
Long story short, I knew I needed to go to the hospital (or a clinic). Luckily we had a contact here in Japan that knew of a local hospital that spoke some English or at least had an English Interpreter. They were open from 8:00 am - 11:00 am the next day. (Hospitals aren’t open 24/7 in Japan, they are also closed holidays.) The next morning, we immediately got up and walked to the hospital (it was fortunately just a 15 minute walk). Since I don’t speak any Japanese and I definitely don’t know how to explain my symptoms in Japanese (plus, I don’t expect the hospital to speak or understand English) I got out my handy dandy Google Translate on my iPhone.
Google Translate has been a lifesaver, mainly because I can’t eat gluten which is in 99% of all Japanese food (that's a whole separate story), but it was also very useful for this Japan hospital experience. Before I left the wifi in the apartment, I made sure to type all of my symptoms in English and translate to Japanese using Google Translate, in case I was asked and they had no idea what I was saying.
If you haven’t used Google Translate while traveling, I highly recommend downloading it (it’s free) and using it. It’s been a lifesaver. Some aspects of if you can use while offline, but I find that using with wifi always works the best.
When we arrived at the hospital, I walked up to the admissions desk. I honestly didn’t know what I should say. Should I say something in English? Take out the Google translate? Wait to see if she saw I wasn’t Japanese and maybe spoke English? (FYI - I NEVER expect anyone in another country to speak English to me or know English. I’m in their country, a country where English is not the main language, so I do my best to be respectful and polite and learn what I can.)
She knew enough English to make a phone call (in Japanese) to ask for an English interpreter. I only knew she was asking for an English Interpreter as I know the word for "English" in Japanese. I know about 10-15 words in Japanese, I wish I would've learned more. I also carry a Japanese-English language and phrases guidebook with me, too.
When the English Interpreter came, she was very helpful. She asked my symptoms in English, so I shared them with her. She then had me fill out a simple form where I had to put my name, local address, birthdate and a local phone number. I don’t have Japanese Health Insurance, but I did have my passport and my travel insurance sheet, which was not needed. She guided me as to where to put all of the information on the paper (it was in Japanese).
When I wrote my name in English, she immediately translated it into Japanese at the top of the form. That was pretty cool. If you’re fascinated by languages, even those you don’t speak, and those that look (and are) as complicated as Japanese, you would have enjoyed this little moment, even in pain.
Once I completed that form, we waited (the man, Jordan, was there with me) in the main waiting area until I was guided (in Japanese) to walk down the hall to a window to hand off my file of papers. The darling lady at the next window was speaking to me in Japanese with the friendliest smile.
I looked at Jordan and looked blankly at the form she wanted me to complete. I’m sure I looked totally confused. Everything was in Japanese. I assumed it was to write down my symptoms, so I got out my iPhone with Google Translate listing all of my symptoms in English and Japanese. She gently took my phone, smiled, then wrote out my symptoms in Japanese on the form and had us take a seat. At this point, I’m still in pretty good spirits, as this experience is an adventure in itself, so I’m giggling a little bit. With the sweetness and positivity of the hospital staff, it made it easier to stay positive.
She motioned for us to take seat and wait. We waited for a while longer, not knowing what to expect or how long we would be waiting, so we just continued to observe this foreign process first hand.
People would come to the window, complete a form, wait to be called then go into the little examination rooms in the same hallway. When my name was called, I went back to see my Doctor who greeted me in English. Thank goodness! His English was perfect, which made it easy to communicate my symptoms and answer his questions.
I felt grateful; I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to answer any more questions, so I fully expected to use Google Translate. He did a brief exam with a nurse in the room, asked me some questions, had me lay down briefly and then told me to go with the nurse for some tests. After the test were complete, we waited in the small hallway with everyone else, again, until my name was called.
After the test results were complete, we were notified to go back to meet with the Doctor. We reviewed the results of the tests and while he wasn’t 100% sure what was going on, he had a general idea, so prescribed some medicine. He mentioned that if my symptoms became worse, I will need to see a specialist. From my understanding in my earlier Google search, many Doctors in Japan are specialists, so you go to a specialist clinic once you know what is going on versus a hospital. He gave me my prescription, my test results and sent me on my way. Everything written in Japanese, of course.
I was given my prescription and a Japanese hospital card (with my name written on it in Japanese - so cool!) and directed toward the first waiting room, where we would get the bill and check out. I was wondering how much this visit was going to cost me.
Not having Japanese Health Insurance and with my travel medical insurance being reimbursement only (so I think), I was hoping this trip wouldn’t be super expensive. Just in case, I had taken out money from the 7-11 ATM (that’s the best way for Americans to get cash in Japan as it accepts US bank cards).
When my name was called to go to the cashier, I was surprised at the total. Without translating my hospital form with itemized billing, the total cost was 3760 Yen, which is about $33 US Dollars. Not only was this whole process less than 90 minutes, but without insurance, seeing a doctor and tests was only $33 US Dollars. I don’t even want to know how much this would have been in the United States.
The next trip we had to make was to the pharmacy. Luckily, in all of my walking and exploring I had an idea of where the pharmacy was, I also knew there were little cartoonish elephants out in front of every pharmacy. I have no idea how I knew that, maybe my curiosity of what those little elephants were doing outside? Either way, I knew where the closest pharmacy was.
At the pharmacy, I had to fill out forms in Japanese, but the Pharmacy Technician (or what they are called in Japan) was helpful. A couple minutes later, my prescription was filled and the Pharmacist came out to explain the medication. He spoke a little English, which was helpful. My pharmacy total, without any insurance, was 1960 Yen, which is about $17 US Dollars.
My total trip to the Japanese hospital, including my prescription (without any insurance) was 5,720 Yen, which is about $50 US Dollars. This was a little unplanned adventure in Japan and I am grateful that not only was it NOT a severe emergency situation, that I am normally healthy (no other health conditions to communicate to the doctor), but that it was a pretty efficient, straightforward and somewhat inexpensive trip to help me start feeling better.
So, while I never wish anyone to have to go to the hospital in another country, in case you have to, it is helpful to know where an English speaking hospital is located in case there’s an emergency. If you have a local contact (hotel/hostel staff, host, friend, family member or even the US Embassy in the country you are traveling in) who has knowledge of how to get to the hospital if there is an emergency, that’s also very helpful.
The best part of this experience is the fact that I would definitely trust the Japanese with my healthcare. They were very helpful, kind, caring, it was an inexpensive visit, Google translate was crucial, and I now have my own Japanese hospital card with my name in Japanese.
There are some things you can prevent while on the road and staying healthy and then there are things that come up where you definitely need medical attention. Trust your gut, be smart and when needed, look into getting professional medical help. Normally, I would have let things pass, but since I was listening to my body and aware that I was not feeling normal, noticed some severe symptoms, I’m glad I trusted my intuition and went in.
After this morning adventure, I went home, took a nap and woke up to a beautiful sunset from our balcony and I knew everything was going to be okay. (I was also grateful it wasn't anything too serious.)