The pandemic is inducing Japanese doctors to go digital

AS COVID-19 SPREAD through Japan this spring, a doctor despaired. What appalled him was not the pace of infection, or a lack of protective equipment, but the archaic systems used to tabulate test results and so track the course of the epidemic. “Even with corona, we’re handwriting and faxing,” he groaned on Twitter.

Japan has excellent health care. Life expectancy at birth is 85 years, the highest in the world. But doctors have been slow to embrace the efficiencies of information technology, despite Japan’s reputation for technical wizardry. The OECD, a club mostly of rich countries, ranks it last among its members for its management and use of data in health care. A commission of experts convened by the Asia-Pacific Initiative, a think-tank in Tokyo, declared Japan’s response to covid-19 a “digital defeat”.

But the coronavirus is also providing a sharp spur for change. The new prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, has made digitising Japan the centrepiece of his economic agenda. The potential benefits are especially big in health care, because costs are rising as the population ages. Spending on health accounted for 11% GDP last year, up from 7% in 2000.

Telemedicine could help cut costs. But the Japan Medical Association (JMA), a powerful lobby, has long opposed online consultations, citing concerns about safety and...

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