Doctor's killing highlights challenges in home care Doctor's killing highlights challenges in home care
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Doctor's killing highlights challenges in home care

    Suzuki Junichi was a familiar face throughout his community in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. For years, the 44-year-old doctor went beyond the call of duty to visit homebound patients, providing care they couldn't get otherwise. But last month his life was cut short in a killing that has raised questions about the dangers faced by visiting medical workers.

    On January 27, Suzuki and a group of other workers connected to his Saitama clinic visited the home of Watanabe Hiroshi, whose 92-year-old mother had died the day before.

    Investigative sources say Watanabe asked Suzuki to give his deceased mother a cardiac massage, and that when Suzuki said it was too late to revive her, Watanabe drew a shotgun and shot him. He also allegedly shot a physical therapist who was part of the accompanying group.

    Suspect in a police car
    Suspect Watanabe Hiroshi was taken into custody after a long standoff with police.

    The sources say at this point the therapist and the others in the group fled, and that Watanabe holed himself up at the house with the doctor. Eleven hours later, police stormed in and arrested Watanabe. Suzuki died from his wounds. The physical therapist was seriously injured but survived.

    House a hostage took place
    The incident took place at night in a residential area. Police called on people living near the house to move to nearby shelters for their safety.

    Watanabe allegedly told investigators that after the death of his mother, he had lost all hope. He allegedly confessed that he had wanted to kill the doctor and other staff, then commit suicide.

    A troubled past

    The unemployed suspect had lived with his mother and cared for her largely by himself. He was reportedly very demanding about the healthcare she received.

    Suzuki discovered this after he began making visits to the house a few years ago. Sources say Watanabe would berate the doctor over the quality of his treatment and make regular complaints to a local doctors' association. Staff at a nursing care organization that also helped Watanabe with his mother say many of their staff felt unsafe around him, so they eventually stopped sending them.

    A pillar of the community

    Suzuki was an integral part of the local healthcare community. He began making home visits about 10 years ago. More recently, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the country, he expanded his workload. He would often work late into the night, going from house to house to see patients.

    Doctor Suzuki Junichi
    NHK interviewed Suzuki last year about his work visiting patients who had the coronavirus.

    Sekiya Noriyasu, another Saitama doctor who performs home visits, says Suzuki had around 300 patients, and worked day and night to tend to their needs. "We have a serious doctor shortage in the prefecture," he says. "It's very hard to manage."

    Suzuki visiting a patient room
    Suzuki told NHK he was driven by nothing more than a desire to help people.

    Vulnerability of home health care

    Sekiya says violence from troubled patients or their family members is an ever-present risk. "Compared to large hospitals, it's hard for local clinics to hire people who can help to keep us safe," he says.

    In a 2018 survey by the National Association for Visiting Nurse Service, nearly half of the nurses who responded said they had been physically assaulted by people using the service or their family members. About the same percentage said they had been mentally abused, and the same again said they had been subjected to sexual harassment. Another survey of home nursing care operators found nearly all want better safety measures in place for their staff, but the majority don't know what steps to take to achieve this.

    Professor Miki Akiko from Kansai Medical University says that in some circumstances overseas, security guards and police accompany medical workers as they make their rounds. "Creating a safer system will also help improve the quality of treatment and care for users," she says. "There's a limit to what healthcare providers can do on their own, so we need to get government on board."