With the 2020 Olympic Games set to take place in Japan, the country is anticipating an influx of international visitors. Lauren Haigh spoke to assistance and healthcare experts to discover the measures being put in place to cope with the additional pressure that will be placed on local resources
AXA Partners looks especially for trauma, cardiac and neurological speciality services, as these are the most demanded
Statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) estimate that around 2.9 million international tourists visited the country in June 2019, which represents a 6.5-per-cent-increase compared with the previous year, and the highest number ever recorded for June. The country is experiencing a further boost to tourism as ITIJ goes to press, due to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which is taking place in Japan from 20 September to 2 November; and it is set to experience an additional surge with the 2020 Olympic Games scheduled to take place in Tokyo from 24 July to 9 August. Both of these events are internationally renowned and, as such, attract large numbers of visitors.
Indeed, it has been estimated that the Olympic Games could draw as many as one million visitors per day to Tokyo, while the Rugby World Cup is estimated to attract more than 600,000 international fans. This is good news for Japan’s tourism industry, but such a vast influx of visitors requires strict preparations and the implementation of planning measures, particularly for Japan’s assistance and healthcare industries. This is crucial to safeguarding the wellbeing of tourists and ensuring that, should the worst happen, they can be looked after. ITIJ spoke to industry experts, including local and international assistance and healthcare providers, to decipher the special preparations that have been – and will be – put in place to cope with the additional pressure placed on resources.
Assistance for all
Mark Attaway, Regional Managing Director, North Asia, International SOS, told ITIJ that his medical and travel security services firm has a dedicated team that continuously finds, evaluates, contracts and audits qualified medical institutions, clinics and other healthcare and logistics providers across Japan. He explained that both events have an extensive reach and, as such, require wide-ranging provisions. “The 2019 Rugby World Cup matches spanned the entire length of Japan, from the island of Hokkaido in the north, to the island of Kyushu in the south, with additional venues sprinkled throughout the main island of Honshu,” he said. “The venues for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will also extend as far north as Hokkaido, and to the Izu area in the south, so we have been working closely with our medical and logistics partners to confirm that sufficient resources and capabilities are in place at each location.” In addition, International SOS is in regular contact with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to ensure it understands its latest plans for the Olympics and remains ahead of the game in terms of local logistics.
Multinational insurance firm AXA Partners is also implementing additional measures, as International Medical Director Dr Cai Glushak explained. He revealed that the firm implements particular procedures for major world events such as World Cups and the Olympic Games: “The actions put in place by the AXA Partners teams are: assessment of the geographical landscape of the event and review of our expansive provider network to compare coverage for the event area in co-ordination with our regional network, operations hub and local office; a medical officer is sent to the site to assess the risk and capabilities of medical providers.”
AXA Partners looks especially for trauma, cardiac and neurological speciality services, as these are the most demanded, said Dr Glushak. “We identify house call and mobile providers who can better support customers on minor problems – especially because of the challenge of transportation to hospital facilities that may be overwhelmed and at a distance from hotels and stadiums; we identify and place on standby evacuation providers and potential medical escorts for evacuations and repatriations; we publish general information for client references and to prepare our travellers, including for access to emergency medical and non-medical services; and also prepare to have translation services online and in person to support visitors,” he explained.
Healthcare in Japan is of an extremely high standard. Hospitals and clinics within Japan are equipped with state-of-the-art technology
World Travel Protection, which is the specialist travel medical assistance business of travel insurance provider Cover-More Group in Australia, also takes a proactive approach. ITIJ spoke to Dr Stephen Rashford, Chief Medical Officer, who explained that the company strives to ensure that its customers have seamless access to quality care wherever they are. “We provide our business partners, customers and operational teams with world event briefings,” he said. “Our approach provides pre-trip, during and post-trip education around the event and what to expect. This advice and information ranges from sporting schedules to access to healthcare and required vaccinations prior to travel.”
Health is wealth
An important element of the preparation ahead of large-scale events involves insurers’ relationships with healthcare providers. Dr Rashford told ITIJ that his company has an ongoing relationship with hospitals in Japan. “Healthcare in Japan is of an extremely high standard. Hospitals and clinics within Japan are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and in our years of assisting travellers all around the world, we have built a very strong and reliable network of providers in Japan,” he said. “World Travel Protection actively maintains, reviews and refreshes our network to ensure that our customers continue to receive quality medical care, and this is no different for the Rugby World Cup and Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”
Specifically, the assistance provider is collaborating with its Japanese partner Japan Assist International (JAIC), as Dr Rashford explains: “To prepare for the Rugby World Cup and 2020 games, JAIC is visiting major hospital facilities in Japan, which will ensure a seamless high-quality experience for our customers should they require medical assistance during their journey. Through this partnership, our customers will have access to our preferred hospitals and clinics.”
International SOS also has an established network of hospitals in Japan, as Attaway explains: “As we’ve been providing medical assistance services to international patients in Japan from our Tokyo Assistance Centre since 1996, and also deliver healthcare support services to US active duty service members in Japan, we have a very robust and active network of hospitals and clinics with extensive international patient experience. But we have been in discussions with local hospitals and clinics since 2018 to confirm plans for additional capacity and capabilities to support increased patient needs during both events.”
In the host country, Emergency Assistance Japan (EAJ) is another local assistance company that is working to strengthen its networks in Tokyo and the city’s surrounding areas. ITIJ spoke to EAJ’s Head of Network Department, Maki Takada, about the company’s preparations. He explained that, given the anticipated increase in tourist arrivals, there is a need for ‘dramatic adjustments’, and highlighted some of the crucial areas that require attention. “The key areas of the public system that require modification relate to emergency situations such as natural disasters, terrorism preparation and medical emergencies in mass gatherings,” he explained. “These modifications will involve fire stations, the police department, medical providers, security companies, and the local councils. The nature of medical assistance is to effectively arrange a variety of services and, as such, EAJ supports the government to facilitate such modifications by proactively taking the role as a hub to all the key parties.”
The key areas of the public system that require modification relate to emergency situations such as natural disasters, terrorism preparation and medical emergencies in mass gatherings
When it comes to making extra provisions for dealing with additional patient cases, EAJ has been working to strengthen its networks in Tokyo’s neighbouring cities, as Takada highlights: “This includes the popular tourist destination Yokohama city in Kanagawa prefecture, and also Chiba prefecture where Narita International Airport and Tokyo Disneyland are located. These are the areas assistance services are most needed, since areas with less volumes of assistance cases are not as prepared as Tokyo, where nearly 50 per cent of EAJ’s inbound cases are concentrated.”
Takada also explained that EAJ has four key initiatives in place in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games. These are: nighttime ER availability and house calls, multi-lingual medical and non-medical services, Hospital Assist, and Olympic desks for foreign clients. He discusses this in more depth: “One of the major challenges in Japan is accessing medical services during the nighttime. To overcome this challenge, we are providing a house-call service with our network doctors, as well as the provision of night-time ER service at EAJ’s associated clinic Koishikawa International Clinic.”
In order to provide comprehensive assistance services to meet the needs of all visiting tourists, EAJ has established the Global Support Department to serve both medical and non-medical cases on a 24/7 basis, covering multiple languages including English and Chinese. The Global Support Department also offers services outside of the insurance markets through its own service Hospital Assist, with a key aim of supporting domestic hospitals to serve foreign patients. “In addition, EAJ has been preparing to establish a support desk in Tokyo where policyholders of our clients can stop by and be referred to medical providers while all of the administration is taken care of,” Takada told ITIJ.
When it comes to working with healthcare providers, Takada said that there are challenges, however: “The biggest obstacle to ensuring seamless access to care for international patients is unpaid medical expenses, which is likely to cause crucial long-term damage to relationships with the medical providers,” he explained. “While, for many years, EAJ has been trying its best to earn and retain the trust of Japanese medical providers in order to ensure access for our foreign clients, a single unpaid medical expense can quickly create a barrier to medical providers who will avoid continuing to take risks.”
A universal language
Ensuring that language barriers can be overcome is an important consideration and something International SOS has been working on, as Attaway explained: “On top of qualifying and working with additional medical providers and logistics partners, we have been actively recruiting and hiring bilingual personnel for our Tokyo Assistance Centre. We also have a full complement of Japanese-speaking medical and security specialists in other countries and Assistance Centres, and we will all be working closely together to deliver a seamless experience for our clients and patients 24 hours a day.” Some of the services available to international clients via the company’s Tokyo Assist Centre include making referrals, co-ordinating consultations and appointments, obtaining medical reports and providing medical monitoring.
This is an area World Travel Protection is also focused on: “We intend to scale up our multilingual emergency contact centres in China and Malaysia in order to handle additional case volume in the proximate region,” explained Dr Rashford. “We will also increase resources in our contact centres in Australia, Canada, Brazil and Argentina as part of our ‘follow-the-sun’ assistance capability.”
The assistance companies ITIJ spoke with all concurred that Japan’s medical system is highly developed. “The Japanese healthcare system is considered one of the very best in the world,” stated International SOS’s Attaway. He said that challenges can arise when international patients don’t speak the language or don’t understand some of the unique aspects of the system. Glushak agreed and said that AXA Partners’ role involves complementing the already impressive healthcare available: “Japan is considered a highly developed country equipped to readily handle all medical emergencies. Hence, AXA Partners is prepared primarily to supply co-ordination, language and cultural support to complement the already excellent medical services available.”
World Travel Protection’s Dr Rashford said that the company works extensively with its partners and providers to ensure direct access to its medical networks in Japan. “Should a customer become unwell or injured during their journey, we maintain a frictionless customer experience by providing around-the-clock assistance and access to accredited medical providers, where we are able to safeguard quality of care,” he stated.
In Japan, there is an ever-present risk of natural disasters and International SOS strives to ensure clients are prepared by providing digital and in-person classroom training. “We also help clients with specific individual needs, for example escalation management planning and location evacuation planning,” stated Attaway. “Our half-day simulation exercise, which tests management’s decision-making and ability to respond to an escalating security situation, such as a natural disaster, has been very popular with clients.” World Travel Protection is also acutely aware of these risks and believes smartphones are crucial to assisting travellers: “Smartphone apps are an invaluable resource during a crisis. Providing access to early warning messages, evacuation points, advisories and what to expect after a disaster, for example increased security presence, prepares our travellers and aids them in staying safe during their journey,” said Dr Rashford. The company also partners with security intelligence agencies to support its travellers with risk mitigation strategies.
Information is further available to travellers on assistance company websites, enabling them to assert a certain degree of autonomy over ensuring safe travels. For example, Attaway explained that International SOS provides comprehensive and up-to-date medical and security information via its Assistance App and on its website.
Safety is paramount
Ahead of the current and forthcoming international sporting events in Japan, it is clear that assistance companies and healthcare providers are doing their utmost to ensure that their clients are well looked after prior to, during and following their trips to the country. Resources are available to travellers and it is up to them to adopt a degree of autonomy in ensuring their travels are as safe as possible by making use of these tools and doing their own research into how to stay safe and well.
With tourism in Japan flourishing, it looks like the 2020 Olympic Games may have a lasting effect, particularly if travellers have a positive experience during their visit, especially those needing to access healthcare or travel assistance services while there. With an already impressive standard of healthcare, complemented by strong networks of assistance providers, this looks entirely possible. Which country will host the next Olympic Games and how will the international travel and medical assistance industry ensure the resources available to guarantee plain sailing for travellers?