Law eyed for Japan's prison doctors to work part-time at private hospitals

The Justice Ministry has formulated a policy of allowing full-time medical or dental officers at correctional institutions to work part-time at private hospitals during on-duty hours.

The policy is designed to eliminate the shortage of doctors and dentists working at such correctional institutions as prisons and juvenile reformatories.

Hoping to implement the policy as early as this summer, the ministry plans to submit a bill to create a special law for the policy during the current Diet session.

As of January, the prescribed number of positions for doctors and dentists at 158 correctional institutions totaled 327. However, 75 positions, or about 23 per cent of the total, were vacant. As many as 31 such institutions were found to have no full-time doctors.

Officials in the ministry take the vacancies very seriously. One of them warned, "Medical service at correctional institutions may collapse."

As the inmates at prisons are aging, more are being transported to medical institutions outside the prison. Commenting on the risk of escape during transport to a hospital, another ministry official said, "It's a heavy burden to make sure there are no escapes [at such times]."

The main factor behind the chronic shortage of medical and dental officers at correctional institutions is believed to be the fact that national public service personnel are banned, in principle, from holding side jobs.

While doctors and dentists working at private medical institutions can hone their skills by gaining experience at other institutions, medical officers at correctional institutions deal only with cases within their institutions, with some worrying that they will not be able to keep up with rapidly advancing medical techniques.

Furthermore, medical and dental officers at correctional institutions are paid less than their counterparts working at private institutions. Because of this, the shortage of young doctors is particularly acute, with the average age of medical officers at correctional institutions being above 50.

While they still will have to handle such tasks as regular medical checkups and health examinations at their institutions, medical officers would be allowed to work flexibly at other medical institutions if they can return to their own institutions promptly in emergencies. Under the new policy, it is believed medical officers will be able to contribute to community health care as well as retain and brush up their medical skills.

Medical officers in positions at or above the level of division chief are currently required to obtain permission from the prime minister when they do side work. Under the special law, they will be able to do so with the permission of the justice minister.