ZAMA, Japan – While living in the United States, Mieko Yonaha gave birth to her daughter in a California hospital in 1997. It was an experience she would never forget.
She recalled that the medical care had left her impressed, as health care workers strived to support her and clearly explained the procedures for her to better understand.
“I still remember it and it brings back good feelings,” she said.
Yonaha, who is Japanese, said she recently took a job in a new medical translator program under U.S. Army Japan, as a way to show her appreciation for the help she once received years ago.
“That’s my goal — to be a part of improving the quality of life of American people, especially the Camp Zama community,” she said.
The Civilian Health Care Navigator Program plans to soon place five translators at the nearby Zama General Hospital to assist Department of Defense civilians, contractors and their dependents not enrolled in TRICARE Prime or Select.
Yonaha and Nozomi Akutsu, who is also a translator in the program, visited the hospital Monday to familiarize themselves before the service officially begins Oct. 2.
“The translators that we’re hiring for this program are phenomenal,” said Col. Jeremy Johnson, command surgeon for USARJ. “They have great English skills and they want to help our patients and take good care of them.”
A top priority for the USARJ command team, the program was created July 7 when a memorandum of understanding was signed between USARJ and the Zama hospital, he added.
The agreement allows the team of translators to work inside the hospital and it also provides them a desk where patients can check in. From there, the team will help patients navigate the hospital, will translate for patients during their appointments, and translate receipts into English for them to file for reimbursement through their insurance companies.
The program is similar to how translators currently support U.S. service members and their families when they receive referrals to off-post medical facilities.
In 2016, the construction of Zama General Hospital was completed on former Camp Zama property, enhancing the medical care of local residents as well as expanding services not provided by the installation’s BG Sams U.S. Army Health Clinic.
“The idea when they cut the ribbon was that it would be a hospital that could be used for the Camp Zama population as well,” Johnson said. “The Civilian Health Care Navigator Program is building on the legacy of the initial intent of this hospital.”
Dr. Jun Watari, director of the Zama hospital, said the recent agreement will benefit both sides, since the hospital lacks the resources to assist English speakers.
“I believe that the local community is well respected by the Camp Zama community and we would like to return our own respect to the base by providing this kind of medical treatment and services,” Watari said. “This is a way of building a good relationship.”
Watari said the hospital offers its patients high-quality medical care with a wide range of services.
Medical care costs are also considerably lower than compared to U.S. medical facilities. For instance, the cost of an initial doctor visit is about $20 and a follow-up visit is about $7, while a blood collection test is around $40 and an MRI or CT inspection is less than $140.
Watari said Camp Zama community members should not hesitate to seek medical care at the hospital for any health concern.
“Regardless of their nationality or background … we don’t discriminate against any patient who comes here,” he said. “Everyone is welcome here and we will do our best to provide the best medical practice.”
Akutsu, who previously worked as a cabin crew member for an airline in Qatar, understands the difficulties some may face while living overseas.
In her new role, she looks forward to closing the communication gap between American patients and hospital staff, who may provide care differently than at U.S. facilities.
“I want to connect them and I want to be like a bridge for them,” she said. “A translator’s job is not only translating the language; it’s also translating the culture itself.”
By having translators at the hospital, which is within walking distance from Camp Zama’s main gate, Akutsu hopes the added convenience will also help community members focus more on preventive care.
“It’s easier for them to seek help for even a small problem,” she said. “This hospital can do some tests and can prevent major issues, so what I want to do is help them before anything becomes serious.”
The health and well-being of community members will also be important to Yonaha, who added that the program will take time to refine as they begin to assist patients.
“This program is new and there will be a lot of adjustments or improvements we will need to make,” she said. “I would like to ask the American patients to be a little patient with us, so we can improve our service level and procedures.”
The colonel said feedback from patients will be crucial to ensure this program fits the needs of the Camp Zama community. And if it works, it could possibly be replicated to support other U.S. military civilians.
“We are going to do it together,” Johnson said, speaking to future patients. “Other military services in Japan are looking at us to see if this is going to succeed. And if it does, they may be able to start a program like this.”
[Editor’s Note: Starting Oct. 2, patients can call 090-1405-2695 or +81-90-1405-2695 from a U.S. phone, or visit the Civilian Health Care Navigator Program desk in person, which is located in the lobby of Zama General Hospital, to schedule appointments.]