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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Meeting kids' medical needs

Aug. 8, 2017

An estimated 17,000 children in Japan need 24-hour medical attention. Many get that care at home, but it can be a heavy burden for the family. Now, there's an effort to make life easier for the families and even provide some extra fun for the children.

A 2 year old girl in Tokyo requires constant medical attention.

She needs her throat cleared, sometimes every 5 minutes. Her mother can barely leave her side.

"I get very tired as well. It makes me feel worried to think about the future," says her mother.

Last year, a facility opened in Tokyo to help families in these situations. Nurses are there around the clock. Caregivers also give the children some enjoyment. The families get to take a break from their daily duties.

"It makes me so happy to see her smile," says Koto's mother.

However, requests for appointments are often double the number of time slots. Some families are end up being turned away.

"We just can't take on new patients. We really need more facilities like this, and soon," says Katsuyasu Uchida, Manager of Momiji House.

Many families are struggling to get support. To address the issue, a local government has stepped in to offer medical care for the children. A hospital in Miyagi Prefecture recently hosted an overnight stay of a young man needing close medical attention.

Keita Toyosawa would spend the night away from his mother. A trial program by the local government made his stay possible.

"I'm a little nervous but I'm sure the nurses will take good care of him," said his mother Shoko.

Two years ago, the prefectural government did a survey of families like Keita's. It found that many families were struggling and needed facilities they could rely on.

"We took the results seriously. I realized that we needed a network that could provide medical care to our residents, no matter where they live," said Hitoshi Iikawa of the Disabled Person's Welfare Division of the Miyagi Prefectural Government.

Government officials turned their attention to existing hospitals in the area. They decided to reserve beds by paying fees, so that they're available when needed. The hospitals already had medical equipment and staff in place, so they could care for children alongside other patients.

The hospital where Keita was scheduled to stay added one nurse to a regular shift. They thought that would be enough to take care of Keita.

The nurse visited Keita’s room often to comfort him.

But when an emergency patient was admitted, the nurse had to leave Keita.

An alarm went off to tell the nurse that Keita had finished his nutritional supplement.

The nurse returned after the emergency patient was taken care of. She finished the process by cleaning his tube.

"I can't stay with you right now. Please wait and watch some cartoons," she tells Keita, before leaving again.

The nurses couldn't spend as much time with Keita as they had thought. He was left alone watching videos.

The next morning, the nurse on the night shift says Keita hadn’t slept well. The staff gave him medical care, but he didn't seem relaxed.

“Let’s work hard to help Keita feel at home here," they agreed.

The nurses got an idea from something Keita's mother had said. They wore pictures of his favorite anime character on their heads and sang him a song.

Finally, Keita looked at ease. Later that morning, his mother came to pick him up.

"It seems like they worked really hard to help him feel comfortable. I hope other people will be able to use this kind of service," she said.

The prefecture and the hospital reviewed Keita’s stay to figure out how best to care for other children.

"I think it'll be tough unless we hire more staff who can care exclusively for these children," a nurse said.

"As well as providing medical care, I think it's also important to visit each child's family, even briefly, to learn the child's routine and personality," said another.

They are considering hiring more nurses and taking other steps to provide better care.

"There are a lot of things to work out, but if we're always motivated by good intentions for the children, we can manage them all," says the general head nurse.


NHK World's Takaya Kawasaki, who covered the story, joins Newsroom Tokyo anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: The hospital we saw in the report is making a serious effort. What's the biggest obstacle?

Kawasaki: That would have to be fees. Hospitals don't get enough financial support from the state. That's because caring for these children isn't considered to be treating an illness. So, if hospitals open up their facilities, they will need to take on that financial burden. I asked a ministry official about the government's stance on the issue.

Hideaki Takashika, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan "The barrier between the medical and welfare fields should be lowered, so that both sectors can work together closely to offer comprehensive support for children who need constant care. I think that will be important. We'll accelerate efforts to help those children."

Shibuya: What can be done to get more support for the care facilities?

Kawasaki: I think financial backing from the private sector is needed. "Momiji House," the facility in Tokyo from earlier in the report, is modelled on a system in the U.K. In Britain, facilities have been set up with support from private firms and individuals. There are now 40 such places across the country.

I've been covering children who need constant care and their families for about a year. A mother I interviewed a year ago has now become very happy. She said she was saved by the temporary care. I hope more families can receive this kind of help.