"Addressing cancer and dementia are key focus areas for Japan"
Sichiro Sasago, Director for Policy Planning, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Government of Japan
Japan is a world leader in technology, innovation and R&D spending, trailing only the United States in the number of new patents filed. Medical device and pharmaceutical consumption are two sectors that roughly account to one-third of Japan’s annual $300 billion in spending on healthcare. For many years, Japan has also been a global leader in the discovery and development of new medicines. Japan ranks third for new chemical entities—the core to drug advancement—only in line after the United States and United Kingdom. In addition, Japan offers universal health coverage, making its healthcare system one of the best in the world.
In this interview with Priyanka Bajpai from BioSpectrum Asia Magazine, Soichiro Sasago, Director for Policy Planning, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Government of Japan discusses Japan’s healthcare vision and assesses the government’s new efforts to leverage the sector as a key driver of economic growth. He also talks about the importance of data in the healthcare industry and how the Japanese policy makers are putting a step forward to leverage the recent IT trends.
Can you please talk about the vision that the Japanese government has for its healthcare?
Japan has a number of healthcare priorities that are important considerations for the government. Developing its long-term vision is therefore a tough balancing act, amidst these constantly evolving and competing priorities.
Resources and capabilities at our disposal will also drive our impetus. Just as a comparison for instance, Singapore has a very advanced medical industry and is achieving amazing successes. Japan, on the other hand, has a humungous amount of patient data, which can be used for a multitude of outcomes that can further the growth of industry and betterment of patient services.
Focus is therefore to be able to use this data in an effective way – we have a record of about 1.3 billion patients, including names and all other relevant information, including genome data. Given that Japan has a high focus on technology advancement, including biotechnology and artificial intelligence, it is our key consideration to leverage all our resources and strengths for an outcome that benefits the public as well as the industry.
Also keeping in step with changing times, ministry is developing its keen sense of business innovation, so as to ensure that it can effectively facilitate all interventions that have the potential to benefit Japan’s healthcare and medical industry.
Given Japan’s well-established technology excellence, what role does it see for itself – in driving innovation and growth in the healthcare technology space?
Addressing deadly diseases of cancer and dementia are key focus areas for Japan. As a result, this is a key determinant for deciding where our resources are directed towards. Additionally, Japan is also keenly interested in collaboration and sharing of expertise in these areas.
Further, another very important focus area is demographic related. The average age of the Japanese is getting higher every year, and with it, the associated old age problems and diseases. We also believe that it is also a very acute and important challenge not only for Japan but for the elderly people everywhere, and specifically in the Asia region. As a result, another area where Japanese government is making sure that we develop appropriate technology and service offering towards catering to the healthcare needs of the elderly. Additionally, this is something that we can also offer as a package [technology + service] to other Asian countries.
Please share some information on the collaboration and partnership initiatives that Japan government has entered into with industry or other countries?
We are constantly working with other Asian countries, on a multitude of research topics. Intention is to facilitate knowledge exchange between doctors and professors from these countries, while collaborating
JAPAN BELIEVES THAT TECHNOLOGIES SUCH AS ROBOTS AND SENSORS, AND INTERNET OF THINGS (IOT) SYSTEMS IN GENERAL, HAVE AN IMPORTANT ROLE TO PLAY EVEN IN THE NEAR FUTURE EVEN WHILE THEY CONTINUE TO BE FAST EVOLVING.
and contributing to areas of mutual interest. Data security and privacy is also a key consideration – especially when it involves sharing of electronic or patient documents deployed in the system, if they have to be shared across borders.
How important is data for the healthcare industry?
As mentioned earlier, data is critical for healthcare, quite similar to a number of other industries. Quality of data being collected is very important, and so is its traceability to source and changes, completeness of the profile. It helps to derive necessary analysis, and timeliness for data especially if required for critical purposes. Further, I think it is also important to standardize and centralize data collection and storage solutions that are deployed. A number of new and innovative technologies, in big data analytics, cloud computing and data science, are therefore pertinent for healthcare too. An additional aspect to consider is regarding the need for data rationalization – especially when it is being collated and aggregated from across multiple sources having varying degrees of authenticity and relevance. Key data analytics and insights are required to stifle out useful information
from all the other noise.
Is there any specific Japanese healthcare policy intervention for the business (pharma, medical device, etc.), for which you will like to share some information or your views on?
While we talked about the need to collect and mine data for insights, next steps from a government’s point of view is to analyse trends and impediments that need to be addressed at a policy level, so as to facilitate an accelerated realization of our stated vision.
A specific example to share, which further enables this, is related to new regulation that has just been established. We realized that there was a strict law that prevented sharing of patient information. However, it is now possible for doctors and hospitals to do this, of course subject to explicit patient consent. Intention is to provide this raw and aggregated data, without compromising patient privacy rights, to pharma and related companies – who can then use it to drive useful insights on patient and disease demographics, as also identify correlations that will help find meaningful and timely interventions for improving prognosis and service levels.
On the technology front, is there any Japanese policy view on how recent IT trends should be managed or leveraged (referring to areas such as robotics, machine learning, security, etc.)?
Japan believes that technologies such as robots and sensors, and Internet of Things (IoT) systems in general, have an important role to play even in the near future even while they continue to be fast evolving. Japanese government is overall very supportive of the idea and will also ensure that companies who need this for improving their product or service offerings are able to do so without any concerns of safety or policy hurdles.
As a specific example that comes to mind, doctors and nurses here in Japan are very busy and some of these innovative technologies can help ensure that their workplace environment is such that productivity can be improved and resources deployed in areas where they add maximum value. Also, for women doctors for instance – when they have to go on pregnancy leaves, their professional lives should be least disrupted when they subsequently join back the workforce, and they should also be able to seamlessly work from home while managing work and personal priorities.
This is the kind of enabling ecosystem that the Japanese government is trying to establish here, by using these technologies as enablers.
Soichiro Sasago Director for Policy Planning, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare , Government of Japan