Japan's doctors may report drivers' disorders of consciousness

The health ministry is considering having medical institutions inform companies about employees with disorders of consciousness that would affect driving, if doctors conclude the patient should be assigned to another position, it has been learned.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry plans to introduce the system in fiscal 2013 after discussions with the ruling parties. However, if information from medical checks is used to reassign people with certain conditions to other positions, complaints regarding issues such as medical discrimination could arise, observers said.

The ministry began discussing accident-prevention measures for companies after a driver of a crane truck who had epilepsy caused an accident that killed six primary school students in Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, in April 2011.

According to a government official, the system under consideration would involve the following steps:

  • Doctors ask employees if they have disorders that affect consciousness, such as epilepsy or sleep apnea.
  • If doctors determine it would be difficult for the symptoms to be controlled with drugs, they inform the patient's employer.
  • Companies then decide how to deal with the situation, such as by reassigning the employee.

Employees are asked about their medical histories at regular health checkups, but are rarely questioned specifically about diseases that impair consciousness. The envisaged system would have medical institutions ask such questions.

However, the ministry needs to tread carefully on whether to apply the system to health checks used for recruitment, as it could constitute a form of discrimination, the observers said.

The Road Traffic Law requires people with epilepsy or who experience recurrent fainting to disclose their conditions when obtaining or renewing driver's licenses, but the law does not stipulate any punishment for violators. An expert panel of the National Police Agency began discussions this month on whether a punishment should be introduced.

The Japanese Epilepsy Association told the council: "These problems will not be solved by strengthening regulations. The government needs to use the current system to encourage people to voluntarily declare their health problems instead of toughening penalties."