Japanese and US Public Health Labs: Not So Far Apart

May 30 2012 :: Published in Annual Meeting, Global Health

By Jody DeVoll, Director of Strategic Communications, APHL

The distance between the US mainland and Japan is over 6,800 miles (close to 11,000 kilometers), so you might assume that their public health laboratory systems would differ markedly. In fact, the similarities are striking, as I learned from members of the Association of Public Health Institutes of Local Governments in Japan who attended APHL’s annual meeting in Seattle, May 20-23. They included:

  • Kunihisa Kozawa, MD, PhD, president, Association of Public Health Institutes of Local Governments in Japan and director, Gunma Institute of Public Health and Environmental Sciences
  • Komei Shirabe, MD, PhD, director, Yamaguchi Prefectural Institute of Public Health and the Environment
  • Yoshimasa Yamamoto, PhD, director general, Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health
  • and Toshio Kishimoto, MD, PhD, general manager, Okayama Prefectural Institute for Environmental Science and Public Health.

The Association of Public Health Institutes of Local Governments in Japan has 79 members, including 47 prefectural institutes and 17 ordinance-designated city laboratories. The prefectural institutes, which correspond roughly to our state public health laboratories, serve as the central public health reference laboratories within their respective jurisdictions. Two-thirds of them conduct both public health and environmental testing either as a single institution or as two, co-located laboratories.

Map of Local Public Health Labs in JapanOver a glass of beer in the hotel lounge, we exchanged reports on the status of governmental health laboratories. Below are several notable points, including several comments that could have been overheard in a US public health laboratory:

One Lab = One Lab: Laboratorians in the US often joke, “If you’ve seen one public health laboratory, you’ve seen one public health laboratory.” In Japan, there is wide variation in size and capability among institutes, making it difficult to coordinate among them.

What is a Public Health Lab?: Governors of prefectures and local government officials generally do not understand the value and function of the laboratories serving their jurisdiction. Federal officials tend to be better informed about the laboratories’ role in protecting public health.

Limited Resources: The global recession has led to cuts in funding for Japan’s governmental laboratories, which are challenged to maintain staffing, programs and technical proficiency.  Association members assert that centralization and/or sharing of laboratory services would trim costs and ensure the overall viability of the laboratory system. Yet government officials aim to preserve broad testing capability within their respective jurisdictions. In Osaka, there are proposals pending to consolidate the two city institutes with the institute serving the prefecture. If this consolidation is approved, it would be the first of its kind.

Training & Money: Many institutes lack the expertise to train young technical staff and have no budget to send them to outside courses. In response, the association has organized a central training program in bacteriology. Government leaders, members say, do not understand how difficult it is to acquire the technical skills required for complex testing.

Lab Leadership: Japan’s baby boomers are rapidly exiting laboratories at the mandatory retirement age of 60, and there are no mid-level scientists ready to succeed them. Young professionals do not have the experience to assume senior leadership roles.

Food Testing: Japan’s institutes are responsible for daily testing of seafood and other staples in compliance with the country’s stringent food safety standards. Any contamination is immediately reported to public health authorities who remove the product from the market. Some US leaders have proposed that public health laboratories expand their limited role in food testing as part of broader efforts to strengthen the food safety system in this country. Perhaps US labs will one day look to their Japanese counterparts as models in this area of laboratory practice.

As we got up to leave, I discovered that Dr. Kishimoto is an accomplished musician who plays and composes for the shakuhachi, the traditional Japanese bamboo flute. According to his colleagues, he is only moonlighting as the general manager of a prefectural institute. You can listen to this multi-talented laboratorian perform and be as impressed as I was.

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