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Areas short of pediatricians in Japan rely on apps for advice

An Ishioka city official holds a smartphone displaying an online medical consultation app on July 5, 2019, in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Kyodo)

TSUKUBA, Japan (Kyodo) -- With many areas in Japan experiencing a severe lack of pediatricians, local governments are increasingly relying on mobile apps that provide their residents with timely medical advice.

Amid a rising trend of online medical consultation through video calls, the apps have proved popular among users seeking quick advice as well as among doctors who can make the most of their free time.

One such app, called "Leber," was developed by Agree Inc., a startup based in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, in January 2018.

Several municipalities in Ibaraki, which has the least number of pediatricians per 100,000 residents in Japan, introduced the medical consultation service this year on a trial basis.

In May, the city of Ishioka in Ibaraki Prefecture, which has no pediatric clinic open on weeknights, began using the app on a trial basis so that parents of children up to 3 years old could use its chat function to get 24-hour free medical advice.

The app was well-received, with more than 30 percent of families with children in the applicable age group registered. The city plans to fully implement the service in the fiscal year starting April 2020.

According to the developer, 87 doctors from 26 medical departments, including internal medicine and gynecology, were available on the app as of last Wednesday.

"There are doctors registered on the app across Japan, including those who are on maternity or childcare leave," said the member of staff in charge of the project.

Consultation fees start from 100 yen ($0.92) for individual users, with half the amount remunerated to doctors, who are required to show their medical license for identification during the registration process.

The service, which falls under what is known as "remote medical consultation," is limited to general advice regarding the type of doctor the user should see, and over-the-counter drugs suitable for their symptoms.

Unlike online consultations, doctors do not perform diagnoses or prescribe medicines. Nonetheless, some users have appreciated the advice through the app for being prompt and convenient.

"It was helpful because I was vacationing in my hometown and could not see my regular doctor," said one user.

For some local governments, preventing problems arising from the advice given online and supporting citizens who do not have a smartphone remains a challenge.

"Doctors who give advice are not liable. We urge residents to use the service at their own discretion," said an official of Kinko, Kagoshima Prefecture, a town that introduced a similar pediatric consultation service last year in collaboration with Tokyo-based IT startup Kids Public.

"There are people who are not good with devices. We want to also maintain face-to-face consultations and other conventional services," said an official of Yokoze in Saitama Prefecture that also began using the same service last year.

Tomohiro Kuroda, director of Kyoto University Hospital's Division of Medical Information Technology and Administration Planning, said he is all for the service.

"It gives peace of mind to people who are hesitant about seeing a doctor but still want advice. It also leads to a decrease in non-emergency patients and reduces the burden on doctors providing medical care," said Kuroda, a professor of information engineering.

"The opportunity (for doctors) to interact with patients while on leave is very important. It can reduce a blank period (in their career) and help facilitate a smoother return," he added.

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