Atsugi clinic offers vital services on, off base
NAVAL AIR FACILITY - For members of the military and their families getting sick is always a problem. But requiring medical care while overseas brings its own set of difficulties, and this is where branch health clinics, or BHCs, like the one at Naval Air Facility, Atsugi, prove their worth every day.
The BHC at Atsugi provides health care to almost 5,000 active duty military personnel, Department of Defense contractors, civilian employees with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) status, retirees, and the dependents of all the above. However, this is limited to primary medical and dental services, with all specialists located one to two hours away at U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka.
In addition to basic health and dental care, the Atsugi clinic offers laboratory services, a pharmacy, X-ray and other tests, and optometry services. It also provides prenatal care up to 39 weeks, at which time expectant mothers are sent to the Stork’s Nest at Yokosuka Naval Base until delivery so they have easy access to the base hospital.
It is after the routine services have been provided and the “healthy” patients have been seen that the work becomes very challenging, because “we can’t do many things in-house, and must send patients off base,” said Dr. Mark M. Nguyen, Medical Corps commander at NAF Atsugi and senior medical officer at the clinic.
The clinic, for example, often sees people who come in with chest pains. However, it does not offer ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support), but only BLS (Basic Life Support), or a level of medical care until patients can be given treatment at a hospital, whether at Yokosuka or a local Japanese facility.
“We immediately think of risk. Are the pains real (indicating something serious) or not? “We practice medicine by ruling (things) out, Nguyen said. “So we take a medical history, do an EKG (electrocardiogram), and give some medication and oxygen to stabilize the patient, while calling 911 for a Japanese ambulance and contacting local Japanese hospitals to admit the patient.
“Japanese hospital emergency rooms, however, are overwhelmed, and their doctors are less willing to accept such patients unless there is evidence that their condition is serious. It becomes our job to find such evidence and convince local health care facilities to admit these patients,” Nguyen said.
Another challenge the clinic faces is that people on base think of it as an emergency room or a doctor’s office that is open at night, Nguyen said.
“We encourage the base population to take advantage of the BHC during business hours, when all ancillary services are available and we can do everything we need to do,” he said, adding that there are no doctors on duty at night. “For true emergencies, go to a local hospital and then call us. The translators will help you.”
This is especially true if the patient lives off base, or becomes ill or is injured off base. Returning to Atsugi will only delay your treatment, Nguyen said.
To arrange for treatment in a local hospital, as well as for many tests, the clinic uses translators that are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In serious cases, a translator accompanies the patient to the local hospital.
“Don’t be afraid of going to an off-base hospital if you need care,” said Hitomi Matsuyama, who has worked at the clinic as a translator for two years. “If you’re off base, go to a local hospital. One of us can help over the phone or we can dispatch someone there. We will do everything to support you,” she said. “We have night and day shifts, so there is always someone.”
Translators also negotiate payment plans with local hospitals for retirees and civilians, who often refuse to go to off-base facilities because they have to pay for treatment up front.
And since sudden injuries can force victims to visit local hospitals whether they want to or not, translators may just be one of the best things a branch health clinic can offer.
“Go to the closest hospital and call us,” Matsuyama said. “We can translate between you and the (Japanese) doctors over the phone.”