Minamisoma city struggles to attract pediatricians, obstetricians amid post-disaster lack of doctors

4 July 2017

Minamisoma city in Fukushima Prefecture is redoubling efforts to invite pediatricians and obstetricians with a view to improving medical services for children and mothers. It had set a June 30 deadline for applications under an incentive program involving subsidy payments in a bid to cover a shortage of these medical specializations caused by the 2011 earthquake and ensuing nuclear accident, but there were no applicants.

Except at the Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital, there is no doctor specializing in pediatrics and only one obstetrician in the city's private hospitals and clinics. On July 3, the city extended the deadline to the end of September and began working on relevant institutions in a more intensive manner for cooperation.

Until the quake and nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, the city had around five pediatricians and at least five obstetricians serving at the municipal hospital and private hospitals and clinics, according to municipal officials.

All pediatricians at private hospitals and clinics left the city for evacuation and other reasons following the nuclear disaster, leaving only one pediatrician at the municipal hospital. Due to the lack of manpower, the city is asking the Public Soma General Hospital in Soma city to accept newborns requiring hospitalization. The Minamisoma municipal hospital has a stopgap obstetrician -- seconded by Fukushima Medical University -- as well as a full-time one. There is only one obstetrician in private practice.

Minamisoma inaugurated the open recruitment program last year to resolve the problem of the lack of doctors, offering to grant up to 50 million yen to a practitioner planning to set up a clinic in the city to help finance expenses such as the cost of installing medical equipment. An orthopedic surgeon applied for the scheme last year but no doctor has from the pediatric or obstetric branches of medicine.

City officials are struggling day by day to attract applicants, urging them to use the incentive scheme while also requesting Fukushima Medical University to dispatch more doctors. The campaign is led by Yuichi Nakazato , who was involved in the inauguration of the public recruitment system as head of the city’s health and welfare department. After mandatory retirement at age 60 last spring, he is now responsible for regional medical care following his reappointment as team leader and chief of the health service section.

Nakazato believes that many doctors stay away from taking on the financial burden of the initial investment, despite the subsidy program, amid bleak prospects in a city where the number of children has shrunk due to the evacuation of many residents.

The city intends to give priority to an improved medical service environment permitting easier opening of clinics by considering relaxing requirements for subsidy payments. “It is the responsibility of the administration to build a medical care system looking 10 to 20 years ahead,” Nakazato said.

■“Family doctors” wanted by mothers

Childrearing generations are calling for a better medical environment for children who carry the future of regional communities.

A 27-year-old mother in the Haramachi district of Minamisoma says she was surprised to find no pediatric specialist in the neighborhood after carrying out Internet searches when her 5-month-old son could not stop coughing. She eventually chose to visit a physician not specializing in pediatrics but felt unsure about the doctor not being a specialist.

“Pediatric specialists are well prepared, setting up two or more entrances to their clinics for infection control, for example,” the mother said. “I am scared to think of the possibility of my son becoming seriously ill by infection,” she added, stressing the need for readily available primary care doctors.

■Measures taken to secure doctors in Fukushima Pref.

The shortage of pediatricians and obstetricians is not limited to Minamisoma. It is also a serious issue elsewhere in Fukushima Prefecture. The prefectural government has taken various measures to secure doctors and ensure their long-term commitment.

According to a survey by the central government's Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, Fukushima had 10.7 pediatricians per 100,000 population as of Dec. 31, 2014, ranking 43rd among Japan’s 47 prefectures, and 6.5 obstetricians per 100,000 population, or 46th, highlighting the serious situation Fukushima faces.

(Translated by Kyodo News)