Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A visit to Ukima Clinic.

When I contacted Dr. Fujinuma to ask whether I could see Ukima Clinic, a community-based clinic operated by the Tokyo Hokuto Health Co-operative, he happily nodded. So, on November 6th, I had the chance to visit the clinic I had been wanting to visit since spring.

I invited three friends who also participated in the Exploring Health Care program this March at Stanford University and University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and now belonging to a clinical skills practice group called DOCS (acronym for Development of Clinical Skills), which we formed after knowing how much clinical experience the medical students on the other side of the 'big pond' are exposed to.

So that morning, the day there started out in the outpatient clinic. Of course, it was our first ever time shadowing a doctor, so there was so much to learn, both in terms of knowledge and the way the doctor interacts with the patient. However, what I felt here most strongly is that health care is truly patient-oriented, in other words, even if patient A and patient B have the same health issues, the medical treatment or the approach taken by the physician may not necessarily be identical.

For example, there's not much hope in persuading an alcoholic or a heavy smoker to quit or reduce the amount if he insists he earns money to drink or smoke, respectively, and if that is the ultimate joy for his life. However, a different approach may be taken towards a person who is more willing to care more for his own health. A woman who smokes five cigarettes a day to refresh herself during break at her work says she is aware that it's not good and she's thinking of cutting the amount, but just couldn't make the move. So, then the physician would actually show her some other ways of refreshing, for example drinking tea or coffee or having a light snack, and chatting with her fellow workers. Naturally, there are exceptions, but in general, the doctor does what makes the patient most happy.

In the afternoon, we participated in what is called an 'Oushin', which is a house call where a doctor goes and sees the patient at his or her home. This is a very interesting form of health care, since you really have the chance to see the environment the patient is in, including the lifestyle and the socio-economic background. There are households with various status, from seriously poor ones to rather wealthy ones. In this afternoon we visited seven.

There was a family where the only person in the house was a 90-year-old lady lying all day in the bed, having only one grandson living with her to look after her when he doesn't have work. Other members of the once big family have either died or are literally 'missing'. The house looked as if it's going to crumble with a couple more earthquakes (yes, common in Japan), and the physician, now used to visiting this home, told us the places in the room where the floor had become too weak to support us. There was also a relatively wealthy-looking family, living in a mansion. Nicely dressed ladies (apparently sisters) had gathered to look after their mother who had become ill. This was a first-time visit for this patient, so the doctor goes through the explaining and all the communication with the patient's family thoroughly and carefully with detail. After the visit, she added that it's essential to build a favorable first impression, since that leads to trust and will ultimately have a substantial effect on the future relationship with the family.

So the day ended roughly eight hours after we arrived at the clinic in the morning, though the physicians still had some paperwork left including reviewing the patients' medical records. It was a day where I had the chance to truly understand that there actually are various kinds of people with various backgrounds. I mean, I knew that by words, but this experience enabled me to put those words in my own context. It is often said that the socio-economic disparities have widened in Japan, but still not to the extent of those seen in the U.S., Europe, or developing nations, however, disparities do exist and those are not minute. It is all the more important to understand the true needs of the patient, considering the background and the environment of the patient, and think about what happiness means for each of the patients, and tailor health care to help them become happier.

At the end, Dr. Fujinuma summarized the day by giving us a small lecture about what primary health care (PHC) is, and what strategies the clinic is taking to make the community more happy as a whole. Through this talk, three key words got connected in one straight line in my mind: primary health care (PHC), public health, and community building and empowerment. There's a whole another story to this, so I'll stop here for now. :-)

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