Japan’s elderly population is thought to be greater than that of any other nation, with 33 per cent of citizens aged 60 or above. Conversely, Japan also suffers from one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, resulting in a “super-aging society” which poses a whole host of social and economic questions.
Enter Japan’s revitalisation strategy, a plan to revolutionise productivity and invest in the future, which hinges on establishing an open innovation ecosystem. “Japan has defined MedTech as a core of this strategy,” says Hironobu Azuma, Fusion Cluster Department Head at The Japan Research Institute.
Speaking at SXSW on the impact of MedTech in a super-aging society, Azuma points out that Japan has been at the cutting edge of this space, with initiatives like the NEDO Technology Commercialisation Programme (TCP) which allows start-ups to showcase how their products can revitalise regional economies by solving a number of problems relating to healthcare disparity.
Problem: People only go to the doctor when they’re already sick
Solution: Scan their pee!
“Generally, we are not able to know our physical abnormalities without physical symptoms, like pains,” says Maria Tsuruoka CEO of Symax. “It’s important to know early symptoms before it’s too late.” While life expectancy in Japan is rising, it’s important to ensure healthy later life, she adds. While fitting regular medical examinations into a busy schedule is impractical for many, Symax circumvents that, with a “24/7 health monitoring device.” It can be installed in any toilet, and scans urine regularly for early indicators for a series of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and strokes.
“Most people are lazy and won’t use the trackers,” says Tsuruoka; luckily, they don’t have to. For a $10 monthly subscription, Symax will alert users if they present early warning signs, allowing them to seek preventative medical treatment. At present, the accuracy of Symax’s algorithm is 97.2 per cent. In addition to helping households live healthier lives, Tsuruoka notes that using the data generated by scanners can help businesses to reduce their medical insurance expenses.
Problem: Misdiagnosis by non-specialists
Solution: D-to-D diagnosis
70 per cent of elderly people suffer from some form of skin disease, and 70 per cent of these people are treated by non-dermatologists. That means less than 50 per cent of diagnoses are accurate, resulting in 4 million misdiagnosed patients in Japan every year. The answer? Doctor-to-doctor diagnosis, or D-to-D: a user-friendly interface which allows primary care doctors to feed back images and questionnaires to specialists, increasing the accuracy of diagnoses without the patient waiting months for a specialist appointment. In test cases, D-to-D has an accuracy rate of 99 per cent. In the future, it is even hoped that advanced machine learning will enable fully automated diagnosis.
Problem: Decrease in obstetricians
Solution: Cloud-based OB/GYN appointments
The number of qualified obstetricians in Japan is falling, and in some regions women have no access at all; for instance, Tono City has not had a maternal doctor since 2004, meaning women have to travel to another town for the 14 medical appointments that are required throughout a pregnancy. Add to that the increasingly late childbearing age in Japan, and women face elevated risk during their pregnancy. Telemedicine platforms, such as Melody International, have been deployed to ensure that expectant couples have all of the information and resources they need, ensuring safe and secure pregnancies and deliveries.
Problem: Lack of organ donors
Solution: Make parts of the heart yourself
The ratio of organ donors to recipients in Japan is approximately 1:10,000. Only 30 successful heart transplant operations take place in Japan each year. In 2014, a team of Japanese researchers successfully created sheets of cardiac tissue, generated from human induced pluripotent stem cells. These iPS cardiac sheets can be used to improve cardiac conditions, and solve issues such as myocardial infractions.
Problem: Care-intensive living
Solution: Robot suit up
Independent living is a massive priority for elderly people and patients living with physical disabilities, but is often sadly impractical in cases of nerve or brain injury. The HAL robotic suit communicates directly with the human brain, and learns to adapt to the individual’s body; it can be worn by patients for an increased degree of independence, and by carers, who require additional support in moving and lifting.