Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A visit to Hinohara Village Clinic.

Hinohara Village is part of Tokyo, located in the northwestern corner of the huge city. The place neither looks like Shinjuku with the jungle of 50-story buildings nor Azabu with all the four-star restaurants and residences of the affluent, but more like a gathering of homes in a mountainous countryside. From central Tokyo, it takes two and a half hours by train to reach the nearest station and a bus ride from there that takes a further 40 minutes.

I had an opportunity to visit the village clinic here on the 25th of February. Two doctors work here, one of whom I know from a primary medical care seminar that took place last September, Dr. Aizawa, and when I asked him whether I could visit to see what health care in a remote area is like, he kindly gave me a nod. So on this morning I got up at 5:00am (still a bit dark around this time of the year), hopped on the train, and headed for Musashi-Itsukashi, the station nearest to the village. And since there are only six bus round-trips between the station and the village, Dr. Aizawa was kind enough to pick me up on the way from his home to the clinic.

The road winds between the mountains along a river, and I realized a lot of snow still remains. There are so many cedar trees on these mountains, many so close to each other, and Dr. Aizawa tells that these were planted in the 1940s for war, but have been left as they are ever since they became unnecessary soon after. The population of the village is now around a little over 2,850 people, with an amazing decreasing rate of 4-5% per year in recent years, with last year's number being 3,000, and the year before a little under 3,200. People over 65 account for 41% and families of the young generation continue to move to urban areas, no wonder there's no high school and the number of students in the village's sole middle and elementary school stand at 30 and 90, respectively.

This day was a relatively easy day for the clinic staff, which is comprised of one office personnel, one medical technologist, three nurses, and two doctors, as they only had about 30 outpatients. The clinic has a small inpatient ward that can accommodate two, but is usually only used in emergencies since a general hospital is about a 40-minute drive from here. Unlike the big hospitals in the urban areas, patients who come here complain of a variety of disorders, from common problems such as simple chest pain caused by falling down, or common colds, to major diseases such as diabetes and other lifestyle-related disorders or pneumonia.

In the afternoon, I had an opportunity to see what is called an "Oushin", which is a house call where a doctor goes and sees the patient at his or her home. I saw a similar activity at Ukima Clinic. (See post 2007/11/20) But unlike in the urban areas of Tokyo, the houses are so far apart, Dr. Aizawa says it could take well over 30 minutes to reach the home. Fortunately today, the house that gave us the call was close enough. It was a big 2-story house with an old couple living together, their children having already moved out to the urban areas with their families, leaving many rooms unused. The husband could not walk anymore, so his wife was taking care of him. Dr. Aizawa adds that many homes are too large, and since only a few live in them, many are cold even inside the house. There are sometimes severe cases, such as when they found a handicapped elderly living alone in a large house on top of the mountains with malnutrition.

Although the current state of health care here could not be said convenient, Dr. Aizawa says that it's much better than that of villages in other prefectures. Local governments in Tokyo are eligible to receive a considerable amount of financial assistance from the metropolitan government, partly due to the fact that they have made it a rule to place at least one doctor for each and every single local government, including small villages with a few hundred people. Meanwhile, not far from Hinohara Village is the countryside of Yamanashi Prefecture, where he says health care is in a "much worse condition". He added that you can even notice the difference in the quality of the road pavement when crossing the border.

There's much more he talked about this day, especially about his early years as a doctor in the remote islands of Tokyo floating in the Pacific. But for now, I'll stop here. Through this visit, I was able to get a general idea of what health care in a remote area is like, at least in Tokyo. I should visit other prefectures too. I would like to thank the kind staff at the clinic for making this visit possible. :-)

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