Pathway to psychiatric care in Japan: A multicenter observational study
- Daisuke Fujisawa1, 2, 3Email author,
- Naoki Hashimoto1, 4,
- Yayoi Masamune-Koizumi1, 5,
- Kotaro Otsuka1, 6,
- Masaru Tateno1, 7,
- Gaku Okugawa1, 8,
- Atsuo Nakagawa1, 2, 3,
- Ryoko Sato1, 9,
- Toshiaki Kikuchi1, 2, 3,
- Eita Tonai1, 10,
- Kosuke Yoshida1, 10,
- Takatoshi Mori1, 11,
- Hidehiko Takahashi1, 12,
- Soichiro Sato1, 13,
- Hiroyasu Igimi1, 14,
- Yoshibumi Waseda1, 14,
- Takefumi Ueno1, 15,
- Ippei Morokuma1, 16,
- Katsuyoshi Takahashi1, 17 and
- Norman Sartorius18
© Fujisawa et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 23 August 2008
Accepted: 26 September 2008
Published: 26 September 2008
This study examines pathways to psychiatric care in Japan using the same method as the collaborative study carried out in 1991 under the auspices of the World Health Organization.
Thirteen psychiatric facilities in Japan were involved. Of the 228 patients who contacted psychiatric facilities with any psychiatric illness, eighty four visiting psychiatric facilities for the first time were enrolled. Pathways to psychiatric care, delays from the onset of illness to treatment prior to reaching psychiatrists were surveyed.
Thirty three patients (39.4%) directly accessed mental health professionals, 32 patients (38.1%) reached them via general hospital, and 13 patients (15.5%) via private practitioners. The patients who consulted mental health professionals as their first carers took a longer time before consulting psychiatrists than the patients who consulted non-mental health professionals as their first carers. The patients who presented somatic symptoms as their main problem experienced longer delay from the onset of illness to psychiatric care than the patients who complained about depressive or anxiety symptoms. Prior to the visit to mental health professionals, patients were rarely informed about their diagnosis and did not receive appropriate treatments from their physicians. Private practitioners were more likely to prescribe psychotropics than physicians in general hospitals, but were less likely to inform their patients of their diagnosis.
This first pathway to psychiatric care study in Japan demonstrated that referral pathway in Japan heavily relies on medical resources. The study indicates possible fields and gives indications, underlining the importance of improving skills and knowledge that will facilitate the recognition of psychiatric disorders presenting with somatic and depressive symptoms in the general health care system and by private practitioners.
An understanding of the way in which people seek care for mental disorders is important for planning mental health services, for the organization of training and for the organization of referrals to psychiatrists from other sources of health and social care. Goldberg and Huxley  proposed the 5 level model, which assumes that people with psychiatric problems start seeking care by consulting their general practitioner, who may refer them to psychiatric facilities. However, descriptive studies regarding this issue [2, 3] demonstrated that people with psychiatric problems follow a variety of pathways before they reach mental health professionals, and that their pathways are influenced by various factors including conventions governing referral, relationships between mental health professionals and other sources of help, and the availability of and accessibility to mental health facilities and other helping agencies. Delays before people with mental illness receive appropriate care are also affected by several demographic factors, by diagnosis of the patients and by pathways they follow to reach psychiatrists.
The pathway study is a quick, useful and inexpensive method of studying help-seeking behavior of people with a mental illness. Pathway studies have been conducted in many countries but, to our knowledge, no study of pathways or people with mental health problems had been done in Japan. Yet, pathway studies in Japan are of particular interest because of the special features of the health system of Japan in which there are no general practitioners, and where patients are allowed to see any doctor of their choice.
We have used the method developed for the World Health Organization multicenter pathway study , albeit with a shorter study period. All consecutive patients who visited mental health services for the first time within one calendar week between October 2003 and January 2004 were enrolled. A semi-structured interview based on an encounter form developed in the WHO collaborative study was conducted by mental health professionals with all the patients enrolled. We translated the encounter form and revised it slightly to adjust it to the situation in Japan. The encounter form served to record demographic data, the main problems presented by the patients, the source and type of care they received before they saw the mental health professional, and the length of time between the occurrence of their mental health problems and their contact with professional carers. The length of time at each step of care was also recorded. Psychiatric diagnoses according to ICD-10, and the total duration of illness were filled in by the psychiatrist in charge.
The areas and participating centers
Name of institution
Type of institution
Psychiatric beds per 10,000 population
Psychiatric doctors per 100,000 population
Sapporo Medical University Hospital
Iwate Medical University Hospital
Yokohama City University Medical Center
Kansai Medical University Hospital
Nagasaki University Hospital
Kurume University Hospital
Fukuoka University Hospital
Wakkanai Municipal Hospital
Sakuragaoka Memorial Hospital
Kochi Prefectural Geiyo Hospital
The study was conducted under the auspices of the Japan Young Psychiatrist Organization (JYPO). The JYPO is a nationwide group of young psychiatrists aiming to promote academic development and networking in the field of psychiatry.
This study was approved by the institutional review boards of each participating center, and all subjects gave their written informed consent after having been given a full description of the study.
The routes taken by individual patients were brought together to produce a "Pathway Diagram". The number of patients taking each step on the pathways was mapped onto the diagram along with and the delays occurring at each step. Delays were compared among major pathways, among different diagnostic groups and among presenting problems. We used median values when comparing delays because the distribution of delay was heavily skewed. Fisher's extract test was used for categorical data and Mann-Whitney non-parametric test was used for continuous data, using the SPSS version 15.0J software (SPSS Inc., Chicago, USA).
Main problem presented and diagnosis given by mental healthprofessionals
Type of first carer and main problems presented
Type of first carer and diagnosis given by mental health professionals
Direct Access to MHP
Indirect Access to MHP
Delays to psychiatric care
The mean number of carers consulted prior to mental health professionals was 0.8 (S.D. = 0.9). The patients who first consulted general hospital saw average of 1.1 carers (S.D. = 0.4), and those who consulted private practitioners saw average of 1.5 carers (S.D. = 1.0) before they saw mental health professionals.
First carer, delays to psychiatric care and number of carers before patients reach mental health professionals
Number of patients
Delays (median weeks)
Mean Number of carers prior to Mental Health Professionals (S.D.)
Onset to first carer
First carer to Mental Health Professionals
Onset to Mental Health Professionals
Mental Health Professionals
8a *,b *
General Hospital Doctors
The median delay between the onset and consultation to the first carer was longest in direct pathway (8 weeks), and was significantly longer than other pathways (1 week in GH Pathway and 4 weeks in PP Pathway). The median delays between the first carer (general hospital doctor or Private Practitioner) and mental health professionals were 0 week. The median delays were not significantly different among three major pathways.
Factors affecting the choice of pathway and delays
Main presented problems, first carer, delay and number of carers before patients reach mental health professionals
Median delay (weeks)
Mean Number of Carers prior to Mental Health Professionals (S.D.)
Mental Health Professionals
General Hospital Doctors
Onset to First Carer
First Carer to Mental Health Professionals
Onset to Mental Health Professionals
(n = 19)
1.2c * (1.0)
(n = 19)
(n = 12)
0.6c * (0.8)
(n = 84)
The patients with somatic symptoms take longer time and see larger number of carers before they reach mental health professionals, compared with those with anxiety symptoms. Age, gender, financial level, whether single or cohabitant, or past history of psychiatric disorder do not affect delays.
Treatment by prior carers
Of 58 patients who were seen by non-psychiatric physicians, 37 patients were seen by general hospital doctors and 21 patients by private practitioners. We compared referral rate to mental health professionals, information about diagnosis given to patients, psychoeducation and medications given by hospital doctors and private practitioners.
(a) Referral to mental health professionals
Thirty two out of 37 patients who consulted general hospitals and 13 out of 21 patients who consulted private practitioners visited mental health professionals as their next carer. These patients are categorized into two groups: those who visited mental health professionals on their own decision (self-referral) and those who were referred by physicians (physician-referral). Twenty six out of 32 patients (81.3%) were referred by physician in general hospitals and 6 out of 13 (46.2%) by private practitioners (p < 0.05).
(b) Informed diagnoses and psychoeducation
Referral rate and treatments by prior carers
Number of patients
Patients who visited MHPs as the next step
Patients referred to MHPs by prior carers
Informed to patients
Accurate diagnosis given
General Hospital Doctors
F3 3/11 F4 0/9
F3 0/4 F4 1/5
F3 3/15 F4 1/14
Eleven out of 58 patients (19.0%) received psychotropic medications; 6 out of 37 (16.2%) by general hospital doctors, (hypnotics 2, antidepressants 4), and 5 out of 21 (23.8%) by private practitioners (anxiolytics only).
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.
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.
The first pathway to psychiatric care study in Japan demonstrated that referral pathway in Japan heavily relies on medical resources. Approximately 40% of the patients directly access mental health professionals, another 40% via general hospital, and 15% via private practitioners. The study indicates importance of improving skills and knowledge that will facilitate the recognition of psychiatric disorders presenting with somatic and depressive symptoms especially among private practitioners.
This study was funded by a nonrestrictive grant from Pfizer Health Research Foundation. The authors express gratitude to Professor Y.Nakane in Nagasaki International University and Professor D. Goldberg in Institute of Psychiatry for their mentorship. We also thank members of JYPO for their support.
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