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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Healing Paients, Building Bridges

Ayumi Takahira

May 21, 2015

Medical authorities say China is in the grip of a health crisis that rarely makes the headlines. They say close to a hundred million people there suffer from diabetes. And millions more are at risk. Health officials call it the silent killer and they’re struggling to stop it.

Diabetes specialist Yoko Iizuka has been working at the University of Tokyo Hospital for 20 years. Many of her patients are Chinese living in the Tokyo area.

One of these patients says, “I can tell her in Chinese exactly how I feel, so she understands my condition precisely and can decide what to do. It’s important."

Iizuka says, “Contributing to medical exchanges between Japan and China is my long-time dream and my duty."

Born to a Chinese father and Japanese mother, Iizuka grew up in northeastern China. After finishing high school, she moved with her family to Tokyo and became a doctor. In 2010, doctors in China invited her to speak at a medical conference in Shanghai and visit hospitals there. She was shocked by the level of treatment she saw.

“In Japan, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and nutritionists work for a patient as a team,” Iizuka says. “We try to help patients stay motivated in their fight against diabetes. But in China, there was no team effort on behalf of the patient."

According to the International Diabetes Federation, more than 380 million people around the world are living with diabetes. About a quarter of them are Chinese. Iizuka is eager to introduce Japanese treatment methods for the chronic disease. Recently, a group of doctors from Beijing visited Iizuka. They were especially interested in picking up dietary advice for their patients.

One of the nutritionists tells visiting doctors, “We ask our patients how they spend their weekends and where they eat out with their family."

“Japanese may be able to follow these instructions but we can’t be so detailed," replies of the Chinese physicians.

In 2011, Iizuka took a team of diabetes specialists to Shanghai. They provided free consultations on everything from diet to daily exercise. They did the same at a hospital in Hangzhou in the following years.

“Almost everyone came to me before they went home and said thank you,” Izuka recalls. “The big smiles on their faces were in complete contrast to the looks of alarm when they first came in. I realized then how much they appreciated what we had done."

To meet the need in China, Iizuka will open a diabetes clinic in Beijing this summer. It will be funded by both Chinese and Japanese backers. She hopes it will be a hub for diabetes research, education and treatment.

“The number of people with diabetes keeps increasing around the world,” Izuka says. “China has 10 times more diabetics than Japan. I believe that we can collect a great deal of data and advance research and prevention. I hope this new hospital will be a center for such information that will be brought back to Japan in the future."


Reporter Ayumi Takahira talked with Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya about the situation.

Beppu: Ayumi, as we heard, a quarter of the world’s diabetics are in China. When I think about Chinese people, I have what is maybe a stereotype, but I have this image of them practicing Kung fu in the morning and people being quite healthy, but that’s changing apparently.

Takahira: Yes, the biggest reason, Dr. Iizuka says, is a change in lifestyle. As China’s economy grows, people are driving more, and exercising less. They’re also eating more and their diet isn’t as healthy. It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what triggers diabetes, but lifestyle factors like food and exercise seem to play a significant role.

Shibuya: Why aren’t the current diabetes treatments working in China?

Takahira: Dr. Iizuka says Chinese doctors have been using western treatment methods. They only prescribe medicine to lower blood sugar levels without looking into details of their patient’s diet or lifestyle. The doses are a problem, too. They are based on the western standards, which are often too strong for people in China. Doctors have started realizing the western methods are not working. So they are trying to find alternatives. One of those alternatives is the Japanese method you saw in the report where a team of specialists work together.

Shibuya: Are Japanese researchers contributing to Chinese healthcare in areas besides diabetes?

Takahira: Yes, in fields like cancer treatment, rehabilitation and prosthetics, Japan seems to have a lot to offer. The government is putting a lot of effort into exporting medical technologies. I spoke about it with Koji Fujimoto, the Cabinet Secretariat for the Office of Healthcare Policy. He’s in charge of the government’s healthcare policy.

Fujimoto says, “For Japan’s medical industry to keep growing with the same quality, I think we need to reach overseas patients. The government is looking to strengthen relations with other countries to achieve our goals. Our medical institutions have great technologies but don’t have the money or know-how to develop businesses. I think that’s the biggest hurdle if we want to expand medical services overseas."

Beppu: Well political relations between China and Japan are not the greatest at the moment. Does this, or did it in the past probably, have some impact on the relationship between the doctors?

Takahira: I would say yes and no. The Japanese government was supporting Dr. Iizuka’s projects in China. But they suspended their funding three years ago when the two countries became embroiled in a political conflict. But Dr. Iizuka says even at that time, she received a warm welcome from Chinese doctors and patients. I think that’s because she’s inspiring and energetic. And she loves to work with people. I think our politicians should be nurturing more people like her who can act as a bridge between Japan and China.