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Foreigners face language barriers at hospitals in Japan due to interpreter shortage

In this picture taken in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Jan. 6, 2019, a medical certificate given to a Myanmarese woman who received treatment for her abdominal pains says in Japanese she has "ileus" or an intestinal blockage. The woman says she didn't understand what her illness was for a long time. (Mainichi/Akira Okubo)

TOKYO -- Foreigners seeking medical treatment in Japan are facing language barriers at hospitals as not many medical institutions have interpreters even though the nation is opening up its doors wider to foreign workers starting in April.

The government is trying to improve the situation by supporting the deployment of medical interpreters and other programs, but those on the frontline of medical care say more needs to be done as foreign patients have difficulty understanding complex terminology on illnesses and treatments.

A 35-year-old Myanmar woman who came to Japan in 2015 and is living in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo told the Mainichi Shimbun that she had concerns about her stomach aches for three years. "I received an operation but I didn't get well. I was worried all the time because I didn't understand the reason."

According to the woman, she began to feel stinging pains in her stomach about six months after her arrival in Japan. The hospital she was taken to didn't have an interpreter for Burmese, but she managed to understand that she had an illness in the abdomen based on an English-language portion of the hospital's explanation and signed what appeared to be a consent form.

Even after an operation she continued to suffer from occasional stomach pains. She was hospitalized twice since last summer, and doctors tried to explain her condition but she was not able to get the details because no Burmese interpreter was available.

She then contacted doctor Junpei Yamamura, a 64-year-old specialist on medical issues about foreigners in Japan, through the Federation of Workers' Union of the Burmese Citizens in Japan. The contact served as a turning point for her. Based on the pictures of her operation and other information, the doctor estimated that she had ileus or an intestinal blockage, and post-operation inflammation triggered a resurgence of the illness. When a Burmese interpreter explained Yamamura's view to her the woman finally understood what happened to her body. Her condition has subsided and she is now improving her diet to prevent a recurrence.

Ma Thin Thin Oo, 45, a medical interpreter of the Burmese language at a clinic in Tokyo, has met many patients like her. "Some foreign patients hesitate to go see a doctor because they cannot explain their conditions properly," she said. "There need to be more interpreters for minority languages such as Burmese, Vietnamese and Nepalese."

According to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare survey of major emergency hospitals in 2016, about 80 percent said they accepted foreign patients while only 12.7 percent replied that they used medical interpreters. In a Saitama Prefecture poll of foreigners in fiscal 2015 about inconveniences they experience at Japanese medical institutions, around 70 percent cited the language barrier.

The central government intends to send more medical interpreters to regional hospitals as more foreign workers are expected to live in Japan following the planned change in the immigration system in April, but observers say working conditions should be improved to attract more interpreters. According to professor Yasuhide Nakamura of Konan Women's University, salaries for medical interpreters are low in some cases although they are required to have higher language skills and ethical standards.

"The demand for interpreters is increasing as more foreign tourists are coming to Japan, and securing medical interpreters will be difficult," said professor Nakamura. "We have to guarantee the quality of medical interpreters by introducing a certification program, and improve their treatment corresponding to their responsibilities."

(Japanese original by Akira Okubo, City News Department)

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