Thirty months after tsunami devastated the Tohoku coast, residents are still facing a lack of medical services because of delays in restarting damaged hospitals and clinics and the closures of others.
To overcome the shortage of medical staff in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the central government has taken special measures, such as reducing the number of nurses required to operate.
The steps have not been much help in the affected areas, which was short on medical services even before the disasters. Others have given up due to concerns about overall health conditions.
In Rikuzentakata, a city in Iwate that was heavily damaged by tsunami, only 13 of 20 medical institutions have reopened. The reduction means some of the city’s residents have to spend an entire day to visit a hospital.
A prefectural hospital in the city is using doctors on loan from other hospitals both in and outside the prefecture, but it is uncertain if the personnel support system can be sustained, a prefectural official said.
The situation is even worse in the Miyagi town of Minamisanriku, where only two of 13 medical institutions have reopened. An official at a public health center said many of them are mired in uncertainty because the town’s reconstruction plans remain in flux.
Patients in serious condition and needing emergency care must be sent to the neighboring city of Ishinomaki. However, an ambulance takes more than 30 minutes to travel from Minamisanriku to Ishinomaki.
Adding insult to injury, Ishinomaki likewise faces a shortage of medical services.
“Some people have stopped going to hospitals,” an Ishinomaki official said.
The city’s health consultation services have been concentrated mainly on preventive steps for evacuees living in temporary housing.
In Iwate, prefectural hospitals in the towns of Yamada and Otsuchi were damaged by the March 2011 tsunami at the cost of 60 beds each.
Prefectural hospitals in neighboring areas are accepting patients from the two towns who need hospitalization. However, some patients and their families are finding it difficult to get to these distant institutions, an Iwate official said.
“We want to give them a sense of security as early as possible,” the official said, emphasizing the importance of restoring local hospitals.
A hospital in Ishinomaki that was destroyed by tsunami has restarted services with a makeshift clinic, but it can’t accept patients in need of emergency care or hospitalization.
As a result, patients are crowding the Japanese Red Cross Ishinomaki Hospital. The institution is swamped by a 20 percent increase in patients requiring hospitalization and a 40 percent surge in patients needing emergency care, compared with the pre-disaster levels.
To deal with the situation, the hospital is shortening patients’ stays when possible.
On top of their other problems, hospitals in Fukushima Prefecture are struggling to secure staff because concerns persist about radioactive contamination.
The number of nurses has dropped at a major hospital run by the city of Mimamisoma.
“Even if we hire new nurses, they soon quit,” an official at the hospital said. The hospital has 230 beds, but it only has the manpower to cover 150.
Another hospital run by the city is planning to reopen its internal medicine department next April, but an official there said they aren’t sure whether it can secure enough doctors and nurses.