Ninth Ideathon: Takahiro Ishikawa, CEO, Sentan Bio
The Ninth Tourism Startup Development Program held on Wednesday, February 20, 2019, welcomed as guest speaker Mr. Takahiro Ishikawa, CEO of Sentan Bio.
Mr. Ishikawa enrolled in the Graduate School of Medicine at Yokohama City University after graduating from the Department of Biological Science and Technology, Faculty of Industrial Science and Technology, at the Tokyo University of Science. In 2002, he founded DNA Bank Retail, Japan’s first B2C genetic analysis firm. In 2004, in the city of Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, he opened a research institute to advance genetic research related to cancer and other diseases. In November 2015, he founded Sentan Bio, a company that provides gene therapy technologies to combat cancer.
About Sentan Bio
Sentan Bio was founded in 2015 as a spinoff of a hospital laboratory. Its businesses are based on the three axes of gene therapy research, regenerative medicine research, and laser therapy research. It currently provides technologies and support for cancer gene therapy at more than 70 hospitals and clinics in Japan.
Inbound and outbound medical tourism
Outbound medical tourism refers to traveling to other countries for medical treatment and examinations, including cosmetic, health, preventive, and other medical services. The reverse pattern is called inbound medical tourism. While Japan has a full universal health insurance system, due to differences in standards for determining brain death, growing numbers of Japanese patients who need organ transplants are traveling abroad. The amount paid by Japanese citizens traveling abroad for such treatment currently exceeds revenues from inbound medical tourism.
Even by stringent global standards, Japan’s medical facilities are well provided with equipment, devices, and environments, and offer top tier surgical care. The examinations and treatment provided by Japan’s medical facilities are known to be accurate, thorough, and fair. Its nurses and other medical staff provide attentive care. Overall, the country has considerable potential as a medical tourism destination. In fact, the numbers of people traveling to Japan from overseas for the treatment of cancer and other intractable illnesses, for cosmetic and preventive care, and for examinations have grown year after year.
When a medical facility accepts a patient from overseas, a coordinator—a medical tourism company or a personal agent—obtains the patient’s medical records from his or her local medical institution and shares them with the accepting medical institution in Japan. The coordinator also makes arrangements for medical interpreters and scheduling; handles activities such as securing rooms for patient family members; arranges sightseeing and other activities for family members; arranges payment for medical care costs; arranges for the translation of treatment and examination results; and arranges subsequent visits to Japan and other follow-up activities.
Attracting inbound medical tourism overseas
Leveraging its strengths in cosmetic care and health promotion, Thailand has secured the top position in Asia for number of inbound patients, attracting some 2.8 million people in 2015. In second place was Singapore, at approximately 1 million people, followed by Malaysia, at approximately 800,000 people. While the new growth strategy adopted by Japan in 2009 stresses medical tourism, due to the negative effects of bureaucratic sectionalism, the number of inbound patients is projected to be a mere 430,000 people in 2020.
Numerous overseas medical retreats sell services based on the wellness luxury approach, hosting wealthy people seeking to combine lengthy recuperation and travel. Examples include a hotel in Germany with a full-time doctor on site offering dietary detoxication programs based on carefully selected personalized menus and Greek tours of the Aegean Sea, during which participants can practice yoga on a private boat and take part in Pilates sessions in specialized facilities. Other examples include a hotel in Thailand where guests receive comprehensive care, including traditional Ayurveda, and a hotel in Dubai where guests are treated in a strikingly luxurious setting.
Possibilities for medical treatment at the patient’s own expense
Under Japan’s universal health insurance system, patients can receive top tier medical care while paying a fixed percentage of the cost. This is called insured care. However, insured care does not cover certain kinds of advanced medical treatment or for other services not approved by the Japanese government. By paying the full cost themselves, patients may receive such treatment as not authorized for insured care. This is referred to as medical treatment at the patient’s own expense.
Under the framework for medical treatment at the patient’s own expense, physicians can provide various medical services with the patient’s consent, including importing drugs approved overseas or formulating drugs that are not approved yet. Due to the rarity of universal health insurance systems like Japan’s, the concept of insured medical care and medical treatment at the patient’s own expense is rarely encountered overseas. For this reason, physicians can only perform medical activities within the scope of those approved by their countries. Japan’s system of medical treatment at the patient’s own expense, which allows physicians with considerable discretion in all areas, is rare; if utilized wisely, it would allow comprehensive medical tourism including non-medical services. Expectations are high that this will bring an influx of foreign currency into Japan. Medical treatment at the patient’s own expense poses significantly potential for inbound medical tourism
The future of inbound medical tourism
Some barriers to promoting inbound medical tourism include culture, language, staffing, and coordinators. Naturally, Japanese people and foreigners have different cultures and languages. There is a need to understand individual cultures and train medical interpreters and medical staff. Another proposal involves introducing a system of official qualifications to address the shortage of high-quality coordinators.
In the past, inbound medical tourism focused on medical retreats. Recently, the focus has shifted toward examinations and cosmetic medical care. Examinations and cosmetic medical care afford opportunities to enjoy sightseeing during one’s stay. In many cases, patients are accompanied by their families. This demand invites effective response.
Japan would find it challenging to compete with overseas medical institutions in terms of luxurious facilities that have taken the lead in catering to inbound medical tourism. Rather, the country should try to succeed based on advanced medical devices in areas like examination and cosmetic care and thoroughgoing hospitality. Japan’s major strengths include its diverse tourism resources, including ancient capitals, natural beauty, and traditional culture, and world-class restaurants serving Japanese and other cuisines. These strengths should be leveraged to create a brand of medical tourism only Japan can offer. Important factors will include joint efforts among multiple types of businesses, including not just medical institutions, but VIP tour companies, insurers, and financial firms; promotional activities to raise the profile of comprehensive medical tourism, outside restrictions on medical advertising; and cooperation with highly capable coordinators overseas.
During the question-and-answer session, Mr. Ishikawa answered questions on various topics, including actual conditions in the medical industry and his motives for starting the company.