Healthcare Goes Mobile in Japan
While there’s gobs of money being made with mail, ring tones, screen savers, mobile coupons, Hello Kitty downloads, and other wireless entertainment services, at least one startup is trying to bring a little mobile convenience to a hitherto largely unexploited area: the burgeoning healthcare market. If you’ve got a chronic disease (think diabetes) that requires hour-to-hour management for issues such as dietary intake, calorie counting, or vital sign monitoring and input, Tokyo-based Mobile Healthcare Inc. thinks that using your keitai is an obvious solution. But the challenges include not only technology and patient education, but also convincing Japan’s hidebound, ultraconservative health system that mobicare makes sense.
Japan’s healthcare system operates on several highly traditional, long-entrenched values: Doctors and medical experts are greatly respected by all segments of society, patients rarely feel it their place to ask any questions (whatsoever) during examinations, and medical treatment – whether for halitosis or terminal cancer – is largely a top-down, one-way affair where doctors do the prescribing and patients do what they’re told (and if it’s a terminal diagnosis, sometimes they’re not told the truth).
Nonetheless, the system has, arguably, been very successful – Japanese are the world’s longest-lived people. But ballooning costs and a rapidly aging population demand new thinking in healthcare provision. For example, the structure of the government-funded national healthcare system actually encourages doctors to over prescribe treatments and drugs (the more the patient receives, the more the doctors are paid) while hospitals and clinics operate on a highly structured, highly bureaucratic (and very expensive) “care-delivered-on-premises” basis.
The net result is that patients suffering from chronic diseases such asdiabetes, high blood pressure, obesity (yes, even in Japan), and similar so-called “lifestyle” diseases spend a lot of time at clinics in face-to-face counseling, while in daily life, diabetes patients, for example, normally walk around with a massive notebook to record calorie counts, food consumed, glucose levels, etc. These data are reported to dieticians and doctors during monthly visits, but must be laboriously input by hand.
Diabetics also struggle to determine what, precisely, is in their food. How many calories are in three servings of temaki-zushi (hand-rolledsushi)? What’s the fat content of teppanyaki ebi (fried shrimp)? Isit OK to drop by the conbini for a quick maguro onigiri (tunarice ball) on the way home from a movie?
Obviously, a lot of this tracking, recording, and management could be done via a mobile terminal. Yet until now, no one’s really tried to create asystem that would do it. The first obstacle is, ironically, the carriers’ own reluctance to allow official mobile site owners to record and handle private information. Next comes the lack of any existing data management software or backend infrastructure to process patient records. Also, if such a system is to offer nutrition info for popular foods, someone’s go to go out and gather all the content data from the McDonalds’s, the Mos Burger,and the Yoshinoya (beef bowl) chain restaurants.
Finally, there’s the challenge of creating a viable business model in a country where the government pays for healthcare. Will users of such a system be wiling to pay? Or perhaps some other entity will pay? (Maybe medical and life insurance companies?)
In today’s program, WWJ meets with James Nakagawa, CEO and founder of Mobile Healthcare, the principal architect behind the firm’s “Lifewatcher” mobile service. We’ll find out what sort of data the system tracks and howdiabetics – particularly those too young to easily manage their diet independently – can benefit from the system. We’ll also hear about the challenges of convincing a skeptical medical establishment that there just may be a better way.
— The Editors