Japan: National insurance now covers coronavirus testing

By Ranamita Chakraborty

Despite confirming over 500 coronavirus cases to date, Japan faces rising concerns that the real number of cases in the country is widely under-reported. Hence in an effort to increase testing and improve reporting of cases, its national health insurance (NHI) system is now covering coronavirus screenings from 6 March onwards according to a report from The Japan Times.

NHI is an important support system for all Japanese residents, allowing them to receive medical treatment for only a fraction of the total cost. Every Japanese citizen and resident (except short-term residents) can subscribe to the system unless they are 75 years of age or older; or receive health insurance from their employer (such as through a health insurance association, mutual aid association, or seafarers’ insurance organization), or receive public assistance.

Japan is said to have a lower testing rate for COVID-19 compared to its neighbouring countries – South Korea and China – where nearly 90,000 people have been infected. However, experts have said that the actual severity of the domestic virus outbreak in the country is possibly concealed by insufficient testing, and proactive testing could be the only way to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading.

While coronavirus screening was already free for patients in Japan, doctors required the approval of local public health centres to administer them using public funding – which slowed down the rate of screenings conducted.

With the new NHI coverage, doctors are now able to decide by themselves whether to test patients. At the same time, this means specimens can be tested at regional public health institutes as well at hospitals with adequate infection control measures and pharmaceutical companies with necessary equipment.

Inaccurate testing poses major risk

However, it seems uncertain whether NHI coverage will result in more being screened in the country as certain municipalities and hospitals are said to lack necessary equipment to test for COVID-19.

A representative of a designated medical centre in Tokyo, which has to send the samples it receives to a separate facility for analysis, told The Japan Times that NHI coverage does not mean that things will immediately change due to the lack of testing equipment and chemicals.

Moreover, the reliability of current testing methods in Japan as well as the accuracy of the results they yield have been put into doubt after several individuals who initially tested negative for COVID-19 later tested positive.

According to the Japanese health ministry, around 860 hospitals across the country are capable of conducting COVID-19 tests with a number of them only being able to collect samples.

In Japan, most people suspected of having COVID-19 are screened using a polymerase chain reaction test which takes between 90 minutes and two hours to produce results and requires test samples to be kept at a certain temperature.

Given that additional time is needed to prepare the test and transport samples, the process can take up to six hours in some cases.

This had led to the health ministry urging the private sector to help develop more reliable, faster and cheaper testing methods. Last week, Japanese medical equipment manufacturer Shimadzu announced it was going to release a newly developed COVID-19 testing kit by the end of March that can provide results in an hour.

Asia Insurance Review

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