Q&A with James Thomas, MD

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EHC 2016 Faculty In Residence James Thomas

This spring, Dr. James Thomas reprised his role as Faculty In Residence for the 2016 Exploring Health Care (EHC) Program. Dr. Thomas received his clinical training in Sheffield, England. A published author, he currently resides in Tokyo where he teaches medical students and junior residents at Keio University School of Medicine.

For EHC 2016, Dr. Thomas drew upon his familiarity with medical systems in the UK, Japan, and the U.S. to lead students through a comparative investigation of various  health care issues, including medical ethics, global medicine, and a doctor’s role in society, among others. Just before the program kicked off, I had a chance to speak with him about his path to pursuing a medical career, thoughts on the U.S. health care system, and what he believes are the essential qualities for a great doctor to possess.

EW: Why/how did you decide to become a doctor? Was it always a dream of yours?

JT: Many people tell me that they always dreamed of being a doctor but for me it was something that developed gradually over time. I always liked science as a child and as I got older I started to do volunteering in a local hospice. Interacting with the patients, doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals gave me an insight into medical care and allowed me to consider it as a career.

EW: What brought you to Japan? 

JT: As a medical student and junior doctor I spent a number of weeks visiting hospitals in various parts of Japan. I initially visited an international hospital in Hokkaido where I stayed with a Japanese family and learnt about Japanese culture, lifestyle, and health care. I became interested in multi-cultural medicine and medical education and so after completing my clinical training in the UK I came to work in Tokyo.

EW: What do you enjoy most about medical education?

JT: I think I enjoy working with so many great people most of all! I’m very lucky to meet many enthusiastic, motivated, and intelligent people who are passionate about what they do. I also really like the fact that in medical education I get to be more creative and design, develop, and deliver a wide range of educational resources.

EW: What are some of the biggest differences that you’ve observed between how medicine is practiced in Japan versus in the West?

JT: I think that there are a lot of similarities as Japan has a very good health care system, however, some of the main differences come from cultural expectations and practices. From my experiences in Japan I still see quite a paternalistic approach to the doctor-patient relationship. This isn’t necessarily a negative point but it is different to the US and UK where there is a greater focus on patient autonomy and decision making.

EW: What do you enjoy most about serving as the EHC Faculty In Residence? In your opinion, what’s the value to participants of studying in a cross-cultural, experiential setting?

JT: There are so many amazing experiences that I’ve had with VIA that it’s difficult to name one! However, one thing I especially enjoy is being a part of the interactions between participants and guest speakers. I’m always very impressed with the participants’ questions and enthusiasm towards the speakers. I feel that the participants really learn a lot from studying in a cross-cultural setting and they can hopefully challenge their own values and beliefs to some extent too. I certainly do!

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Above: Faculty In Residence Dr. James Thomas introduces EHC participants to effective clinical communication techniques.

EW: What surprises you the most about the U.S. health care system?

JT: Two things. The first is the diversity. Diversity can be seen in the people who work in the hospital, the patients who attend the clinics, and the range of treatments and management options available. This is really a wonderful thing. The second thing is the price!  Coming from the UK and Japan where health care is often free (or significantly subsidised) at the point of access, I was surprised to see how having insurance, or lack of insurance, can affect health care provision. This is a challenge that many people are passionate about addressing.

EW: In your opinion, what is the most important quality for a doctor to have?

JT: This is a difficult one. Of course empathy, kindness, communication skills, the ability to work well in a team, and medical knowledge are all important. However, if I had to choose then I would say that having high levels of motivation and a ‘good attitude’ are important for building strong foundations.

EW: Fun fact about yourself.

JT:  I like challenges and pushing myself so I’m always trying to learn new skills. This year I learnt how to solve a rubik cube and do a back flip (though not at the same time)!

EW: Thank you for your time. 

JT: My pleasure. Cheers.