To our knowledge, this is the first multicenter study of pathways to psychiatric care in Japan. Our study provides a rough sketch of referral pathways to psychiatric care and some information about delays (and factors that influence them), treatments and psychoeducation given to the patients. Japan is unique in that it lacks general practitioners. We lack in training in general practice and most physicians in Japan are specialists in some field. Japan is also unique in that it employs free-referral medical system. That means, patients are allowed to see any hospital, any doctor of any subspecialty. Note that these two characteristics are quite important to understand the feature.
This diagnostic distribution is similar to those of previous pathway studies conducted in west European countries, including Spain, Italy and United Kingdom.
The common presenting problems were somatic symptoms, depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms. This is also similar to findings or previous pathways studies in developing and developed countries.
The pathway diagram demonstrates that, in Japan, 40% of all subjects have directly access to mental health professionals. Pathway studies have demonstrated that pathway to psychiatric care follow three patterns. The first pattern is dominated by the role of primary care physicians. Most patients first contact their general practitioner who refers them to mental health professionals. This pattern is seen in west and east European countries (Cantabria and Granada in Spain, Manchester in England, Benesov-Kromeriz in Czechoslovakia, Sofia in Bulgaria, Turgu Mures in Romania), Aden in Yemen, Mexico City in Mexico, Havana in Cuba and Sydney in Australia. The second pattern is seen in Bali and Ujung-Pandang (Indonesia), Bangalore (India), Harare (Zimbabwe), Kwara (Nigeria) and Rawalpindi (Pakistan), where native healers play an important role in referral pathway. The third pattern is seen in Ankara (Turkey), Lower-Silesia (Poland), Verona (Italy), where patients are allowed to see any carer of their choice and are likely to have directly access to mental health professionals. The nations of this pattern are likely to have larger proportion of patients who directly access mental health professionals. Our results are similar to those in countries with the third pattern. In Japan, patients are allowed to access any medical facilities of their choice, and patients with psychiatric problems prefer to see physicians in general hospitals rather than private practitioners. In contrast, in countries in which people are supposed to see general practitioners before they are seen by specialists (such as Spain, United Kingdom, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, and Australia, the pathway to mental health professionals via private practitioners is the most frequent and direct access is an exception.
Direct access to mental health professionals has both advantages and disadvantages. In the Goldberg and Huxley model, general practitioners are expected to function as "gate keepers" to apportion patients with a more severe form of illness to higher levels of specialization by keeping milder patients at lower levels. This gate-keeping role is supposed to enable psychiatrists to concentrate on patients with more severe forms of illness. Direct accessibility to mental health professionals may lead to wasteful use of the time of highly specialized professionals who would treat milder forms of illness which could be very well done by general practitioners. Such an arrangement would thus increase the cost of care and deteriorate medical economical efficiency. On the other hands, direct accessibility to mental health professionals may shorten the total delay between the onset of symptom and arrival at mental health professionals for patients who may have milder symptoms in the beginning of their illness but who do not recover as well when treated by general practitioners.
There are two types of delay in reaching psychiatric care. The first type of delay is the delay between the onset of the problem and the contact with the first carer. The length of this type of delay depends on the process of patients' recognition of the problem and their readiness to seek help. The second type of delay is that caused by contacting a carer who is not a mental health professional. This delay depends on the time that carers take before they recognize a patient's problem or discover that their treatment of that problem was not successful, which makes them refer the patient to a mental health professional.
Our study showed that the delay between the onset of the symptom and contact to mental health professionals was the shortest among the patients who firstly accessed general hospitals (3 median weeks), compared with those among the patients who accessed private practitioners or directly accessed mental health professionals (8 median weeks, respectively). Patients tends to access general hospital or private practitioners more quickly than they access mental health professionals (p < 0.1). However, the advantage of early visit to the first carer is offset by the delay between the first carer and the mental health professionals; therefore total delay in this pathway becomes not significantly different among GH pathway, PP pathway and direct access. This is so for patients who did not improve under treatment by the non-mental health professionals, or were not immediately recognized as having a mental illness; all others – who reacted well to treatment or improved spontaneously – were better off having contacted general health facilities because they avoided stigmatization.
Physicians working in general hospitals refer their patients more quickly to mental health professionals than private practitioners. This may be because physicians in general hospitals are more specialized in their field of interest, which might enhance quicker referral compared with private practitioners, who are supposed to be more ''general'' in their practice. Compared with general hospital doctors, private practitioners are more likely to prescribe psychotropics and to give psychiatric diagnosis, although somewhat inappropriately.
The patients who presented somatic symptoms as their main problem experienced longer delay than patients who complained about psychiatric symptoms. This is similar to findings of studies in other countries. The reason for this finding may be that many such patients do not regard their problem as psychiatric symptoms and that they request their physician to carry out time-consuming physical examinations, and because physicians might think that they need to take their time for physical examinations to rule out physical illness.
Compared to patients with anxiety, patients with depressive symptoms are more likely to first seek care by contacting non-mental health professionals. Prior pathway studies suggest that psychotic feature lead to shorter delays. Our study didn't support this, presumably due to small sample size.
Overall, patients access the first carer within a few weeks and then reach mental health professionals within one median week. These delays are as short as those in Spain, Cuba and Turkey, and one of the shortest among pathway studies to date. This may be because at the number of psychiatrists per capita in Japan is much higher than those in countries in prior studies, as well as because patients are allowed to see any doctor or psychiatrist of their choice.
Compared with prior pathway studies, our study is unique in that we surveyed whether patients were told what their diagnosis was and explored care given to patients prior to the visit of mental health professionals. In our country, patients were rarely told their diagnosis and rarely received appropriate treatments from non-psychiatrists. Private practitioners were more likely to prescribe psychotropics compared with physicians in general hospitals, but were less likely to tell patients their diagnosis.
Our study has some limitations. First, small sample size makes it difficult to evaluate the effect of variation in diagnoses and characteristics of participating facilities. Second, participating centers were biased in their characteristics and locations. Psychiatric outpatient clinics (without wards) were not included in our study. The distribution of the diagnoses may have been influenced by unevenness in numbers and types of patients seen in the participating centers. Third, information gathered in this study is based on the willingness of patients to acknowledge their previous source of care. Thus, patients may have been reluctant to disclose contacts with carers (such as religious or traditional healers) or deny previous psychiatric treatment. Finally, as mentioned in previous reports, this study gives no account of those who do not reach mental health services.
Despite these limitations, this study is noteworthy in that this is the first multicenter study on pathway to psychiatric care in Japan. We hope that this study will generate hypotheses and studies focused on ways of improving the mental health care system in Japan.