Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A visit to Nagi Family Clinic.

During the final week of August 2008, I had an opportunity to stay with Dr. Akira Matsushita, the family medicine physician at Nagi Family Clinic, one of Nagi town's only two medical facilities. A larger hospital in nearby Tsuyama, which is a 40-minute drive, is the only in the region offering tertiary medical care.

Nagi is a small town in Okayama, situated in the partly mountainous region of this rural prefecture in the southwestern part of Honshu, Japan. A 15-minute drive will take you to the border with Tottori prefecture. Sarcastically nicknamed 'the Ginza of Nagi' by some, the central part of the town is not bustling at all, with only two supermarkets (closing at 7PM), one convenient store, a tiny locally-owned bookshop, an elementary school, one pharmacy, the town office, and the clinic. Home to 6,690, Nagi's population has been decreasing year after year, just like many other rural towns and villages where younger generations have decided to move to not-too-distant urbanized areas such as Okayama city, Kobe, or Osaka, in search for better jobs, a wider choice in academics for their children, or simply a more convenient lifestyle.

So, why did I visit the clinic? Well, after seeing various types of community-based health care in the U.S., Thailand, Scotland, and Tokyo, I wanted to have a glimpse of what rural health care is like in a place far from the country's capital or any other big city. The closest to Nagi is Okayama city, which is more than a two-hour drive. Dr. Matsushita, well-known among general practitioners in Japan for family-oriented primary medical care and medical education in family medicine, happened to be the former attending of a doctor at my university's general medicine department who I am very fond of, Dr. Hiroyuki Saito.

Now what's so special about this clinic? Well, to put it in a single sentence, Nagi Family Clinic knows its patients very well, and that is very, very well. The doctors take a considerable amount of time in listening to the patients, some of whom make visiting the clinic part of their weekly schedule just to have someone to talk with. You may think that is wasting time, but if that is helping the patient stay happy and actually healthy by means of making the patient think and recall what happened in the past week, that is not necessarily correct. All the medical records have been digitalized and are online on the clinic's server, and that has enabled them to create the 'electronic family tree', where when you look at a patient's medical records, you can also see the family members and their medical records at the same time, which is a handy tool that helps to make medical care more family-oriented. The doctor can interact with the patient with all that background of the patient in mind. Another special feature I noticed is that, every single staff, including the paramedical workers, know so much about the patients. Their medical issues, their character, their habits, and so forth.

So, my week at the clinic and town enabled me to get a glimpse of who and what kind of people live here, the social issues that underlie, and how health care is done in this small rural town, from different perspectives, as Dr. Matsushita kindly made it possible for me to spend time not only with the clinic staff but also with the social worker at the nearby town office and staff at the local non-profit organization (NPO) called Kazamakura, which offers services for the elderly including home-visiting nursing care and driving them to health care facilities. A low-fare local town loop bus was introduced recently, but for the elderly, bus-stops are often still too far from the home to walk to, and you don't have the option of a taxi in this rural part of the prefecture. Like in many other rural areas of the country, the over-65-years-old population is growing there too, now exceeding 25%.

The Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) base and training grounds play a large role in supporting the local economy (the JSDF even pays a certain amount to the town for each and every single bullet fired) in a town where apart from one construction company's factory are only small local businesses and agriculture. And that factory is currently amid a dispute with the people living nearby, who are complaining of the exhaust that comes from the factory chimneys causing respiratory problems, though company officials claim they are meeting all environmental standards. It is a bittersweet situation for the local government, which finally succeeded in inviting this first company to make a factory in town but that is now having conflicts with the locals.

Every week, a 'community care meeting' is organized at the family clinic, which is a gathering attended by staff from the homes for the aged in the town, the local town office, Kazamakura, the local pharmacy, and the clinic, to discuss the latest health matters and try to solve them through cooperation and close coordination. For example, they would talk about s 90-year-old lady living in the southern part of town who's dementia has recently deteriorated and needs more frequent home-helper visits, or how to make efficient and sustainable safety nets for the elderly living alone and far from the center of the town. This town, being small, means human resources are limited, but on the other hand it could also be an advantage, as it makes it easier for them to communicate with each other, coordinate closely, and make decisions fast. And including the aforementioned clinic staff, everyone knows the town people very well. Truly a form of community-based holistic care.

People of Nagi are bright. I don't know, but every time I visit countrysides, I can't help myself from getting the impression that people in rural areas generally seem to be happier than those living in the busy mega cities. And the elderly in Nagi, yes, some are surely vulnerable to illnesses, but there are still many 80-year-olds and even 90-year-olds working in the fields from sunrise to sunset. One old man told me, "yes, I'm way past 65 (retirement age), but working in the fields is what I enjoy and that is my living".

Good communication and cooperation is there with the health care staff and happiness and livelihood are not yet lost with the people. Yes, many small villages and towns have chosen to merge with their neighbors due to financial uncertainties, and no doubt there will be challenges ahead for Nagi as well, but with all the strengths plus a touch of creative thinking, I believe they could well be poised to become a good example of rural community holistic care. :-)

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