Medical Information in the U.S.

The following websites and resources are provided for informational purposes only.  The TOMODACHI STEM @ Rice Program, Rice University, and the U.S.-Japan Council is not responsible for content contained on any external sites.

Centers for Disease Control: Information for Traveler’s to the U.S.
Health Insurance
Medical Care in the U.S.
Medicine in the U.S.
Staying Healthy in the U.S.
Resiliency and Mental Health Abroad
Medical Vocabulary

Centers for Disease Control: Information for Traveler’s to the U.S.

Japanese students may find it helpful to review the Center’s for Disease Control Information for Traveler’s to the U.S. page.

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Health Insurance

Unlike Japan, the U.S. does not have a national health system or plan.  Rather, doctors, clinics, and hospitals operate independently and set their own fees/rates.  Americans typically receive their health insurance through their employer and if they are not working or do not qualify for health insurance through they employer, they must purchase insurance individually.   Health insurance companies set up relationships/agreements with different doctors, clinics, and hospitals and each health insurance plan will have its own list of ‘preferred’ or ‘in-network providers’.  Medical care and insurance in the U.S. is very complex and very, very expensive.   This is why it is vital that all foreign visitors to the U.S. have health insurance coverage.

Health insurance is required for J-1 visa holders for the duration of their program and will be purchased for you by the TOMODACHI STEM program. More information on your health insurance plan will be provided prior to arrival at Rice University. When you go to a doctor or clinic you will need to show your insurance card and ID (passport) when you check-in to be sure they bill your insurance correctly for your medical care/treatment.

For more information see the Rice OISS document "Health Insurance Tips" document.

In-Network Providers:  You will be providing with a list of nearby clinics and hospitals that are considered 'in-network' by your insurance plan.  Whenever possible, it is best to go to one of these designated clinics or hospitals.  When you go to a medical provider that is considered 'in-network' by your insurance company they will typically only charge you a small co-pay fee for your visit.  They will then submit the bill for your medical care/treatment directly to the insurance company on your behalf.  The insurance company will then review and pay the appropriate portion of your bill (based on your policy coverage amounts) directly to the medical provider.  If there is any unpaid balance due the medical provider will mail you a bill and you must pay the remaining balance individually.

Out-of-Network Providers:  You can seek treatment at any clinic or hospital in the U.S. under your insurance plan but if you go to an out-of-network provider that does not have a direct relationship with your insurance company you may be asked to pay the full cost of your treatment individually up-front.  Since medical care in the U.S. can be quite expensive, this means you should have a credit card with you to pay this cost. You should ask for a 'detailed invoice' from the doctors office and you will then need to submit this directly to your insurance company along with a 'Reimbursement Claim Form'.  You insurance company will then review your claim form and invoice and contact you if they need any additional information.   Once approved, they will then issue you a check to reimburse you for the appropriate portion of your bill (based on your policy coverage amounts). Any unpaid balance would be your individual cost.

In-Network Clinics Nearby Rice: Upon arrival at Rice, all Nakatani RIES Fellows will be provided with a list of nearby in-network clinics and hospitals that accept your insurance plan.  When seeking medical treatment you should first attempt to use these facilities.

In-Network Clinics Nearby Rice: Upon arrival at Rice, all Nakatani RIES Fellows will be provided with a list of nearby in-network clinics and hospitals that accept your insurance plan.  When seeking medical treatment you should first attempt to use these facilities.

Out-of-Network Providers:  You can seek treatment at any clinic or hospital in the U.S. under your insurance plan but if you go to an out-of-network provider that does not have a direct relationship with your insurance company you may be asked to pay the full cost of your treatment individually up-front.  Since medical care in the U.S. can be quite expensive, this means you should have a credit card with you to pay this cost. You should ask for a ‘detailed invoice’ from the doctors office and you will then need to submit this directly to your insurance company along with a ‘Reimbursement Claim Form’.  You insurance company will then review your claim form and invoice and contact you if they need any additional information.   Once approved, they will then issue you a check to reimburse you for the appropriate portion of your bill (based on your policy coverage amounts). Any unpaid balance would be your individual cost.

Eye doctors and dentists are not covered by your international health insurance in the U.S.! 

Getting prescription glasses or visiting a dentist in the U.S. can be very, very expensive. All students are strongly encouraged to visit their eye doctor or dentist in Japan prior to departure. 

Eye Doctor: If you wear glasses, be sure you bring an extra/old pair of prescription glasses in case your primary pair gets broken or lost. If you wear contacts, be sure you bring a sufficient supply of contacts (plus a few extra) to wear while in the U.S. 

Dentist: Visit your dentist in Japan prior to departure to be sure any regularly schedule cleaning or dental work has been completed. If you have any cavities/other needs or if your wisdom teeth are coming in an need to be taken out do this before leaving for your program abroad!  Nothing can ruin your day more than dental pain and it can be prohibitively expensive to get these matters taken care of while you are abroad.  

For more on this, see the Before You Go: Pre-Departure Medical Check and Immunizations on our Pre-Departure Resources page. 

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Medical Care in the U.S.

The U.S. has a tiered medical healthcare system and whether you go to a doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or hospital will depend on the severity of your symptoms or illness.  This is because the cost of medical care/treatment varies with hospital emergency rooms being most expensive. Visiting student researchers are not eligible to use the Rice University Health Clinic on campus as that is only open to degree-seeking students.  Instead, for most minor illnesses visiting student researchers should visit an urgent care clinic or clinic in a pharmacy/store.  Upon arrival at Rice University, students will be given a list of the nearest clinics to campus that would be convenient to visit and are included as ‘in-network’ on your health insurance plan to use in case of illness. If you become ill and need to see a doctor, call program staff immediately and we will attempt to arrange for someone to go with you to the appointment.

Clinics in Pharmacies (CVS or Walgreen's):  Some pharmacies in the U.S. offer small medical clinics that do not require an appointment and typically offer fast service for minor illnesses. Hours vary by location but they are typically open Monday – Sunday.

Urgent or Express Care Clinics:  Some medical centers offer urgent care or express care clinics for treatment of minor to intermediate medical issues without an appointment.  Urgent care clinics triage medical care, meaning if someone with a more serious illness or injury comes in after you they will be treated first and you will need to wait.  Depending on the clinic and day/time the wait can be quite short (~20 minutes) or much longer (up to a few hours).  The wait time will be much shorter for minor/regular illness or medical care than it would be in a hospital emergency room. Hours vary by location but many are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Doctor's Office: If you have an on-going medical condition or need to see a specific type of doctor you will need to make an appointment and find a doctor that is accepting new patients. Doctor's offices are typically only open from 9:00 – 5:00 PM, Monday – Friday. If the doctor's office does not accept your insurance plan they will likely refer you to a different doctor. Look up the list of in-network doctors on your insurance plan website or call your insurance company to ask for a referral to a doctor in your local area.

Hospital Emergency Rooms (ERs): ERs should be use for life-threatening emergencies only.  ERs triage medical care with those who have the most serious illness or injury being treated first. If you go to an ER for a non-life threatening emergency, such as a sprained ankle or the flu, you will be put at the bottom of the list and will have to wait for many hours, perhaps even a full day, before you are treated.  ERs are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Medicine in the U.S.

Your U.S. health insurance will also include coverage for prescription medications that your doctor may prescribe if you are ill.  The doctor will give you a written prescription sheet that you will take to a pharmacy to fill. Depending on your insurance, you may only need to pay a small portion of the cost of the prescription medication or you may need to pay the full cost.  There is a pharmacy in the Kroger grocery store next door to the hotel and a CVC pharmacy just one block away.

Most general medicine for minor aches and illnesses can be purchased without a doctor's prescription at grocery stores, pharmacies, or home good/department stores like Target in the U.S.  These medications are commonly called Over the Counter (OTC) medications as you do not need to see a doctor or get a written prescription to purchase. This includes medicine for headaches, fevers, muscle aches, cold, allergies, diarrhea, constipation, and other minor illnesses. You can also purchase band-aids, antibiotic ointment, and many other necessary first-aid supplies.  

U.S. vs. Japanese Brand Names: Brand names, dosages, and instructions on how to take this medication will be different from the medication you are used to taking in Japan. When you are sick, it can be difficult to know what type of medication you should buy and you may not feel like going to the store to buy medicine. Instead, plan to bring your own first-aid kit with you to the U.S. with your favorite/commonly used Japanese medicines.  That way, if you feel ill you can simply go back to your hotel room to take your headache pill or cold medicine rather than having to figure out which American brand to buy.  

No Powder OTC Medication: One difference is that most medications in the U.S. are sold as either syrups/liquids or in pill form that you will swallow with water.  You will not find cold/allergy medication in the U.S. that is in powder form and that you must add to hot water/tea.  If you don't like to swallow pills or liquid/syrup medicine, bring your preferred cold/allergy medications with you from Japan. 

Cold/Allergy Medication with Pseudo-ephedrine: There are some medications in the U.S. that can legally be purchased/used for their listed/prescribed medical purpose only.  However, they have the potential to be used illegally as well; usually by extracting one of their ingredients to use to make a different illegal substance. For these types of medication, special databases have been created that stores are legally required to use to track who is purchasing these types of medications and in what quantities.  If someone is flagged in the system for purchasing too much of this medication then the pharmacy/store may refuse to sell more to that customer or may give that customers name/information to law enforcement.  

The most likely situation where you will find this is if you purchase a medication that contains the ingredient pseudoephedrine.  For example, the allergy medication Sudafed or some other cold medications.  This ingredient is a very effective decongestant and is legal in the U.S.  However, pseudoephedrine is also an ingredient that can be used to make some illegal drugs/substances.  To prevent people from buying or stealing Sudafed or other medications with this ingredient to use to make illegal drugs, the actual boxes of medication are kept behind the counter and there may be limits on how many boxes you can buy.  

Be aware that, in Japan, pseudoephderine and some other common medications in the U.S. are illegal substances! If you purchase allergy/cold medication from a pharmacy/store in the U.S. that was stored 'behind the counter' this means it likely contains pseduoephdrine and you should not bring this medication back with you to Japan. See Importing or Bringing Medication into Japan for Personal Use for an overview of which common OTC/Prescription medications you can obtain in the U.S. that you should not bring back with you to Japan. You can also buy allergy/cold medications that do not contain this ingredient.  These boxes will be out on the store shelves and you can just take directly to the register to purchase.

If you visit a doctor and they have prescribed special, prescription medication that you need to take you will usually be given a written paper that you will need to take to a pharmacy and give at the counter. When you drop off/pick-up your prescription you should also give your health insurance card at the counter.  They will then 'run' your insurance to see how much of the medication cost your insurance will pay and tell you what the balance is that you will need to pay individually.   

Sometimes, the doctor's office may be able to 'call in' your prescription to your preferred pharmacy for you. They then electronically transfer your prescription request to the store and you don't have to bring in the written form as the doctor has already 'called it in'.  If they offer to 'call in' your prescription the nearest pharmacies to the hotel would be: 

  • Kroger grocery store pharmacy at 7747 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77030 
  • CVS pharmacy at 7900 S Main St, Houston, TX 77030
  • Target pharmacy at 8500 S Main St, Houston, TX 77025 

If you need a refill of your medication, you would visit the same pharmacy to request another bottle if the doctor has prescribed more than the original bottle/number of pills you were dispensed. 

First-Aid Kit: We strongly recommend that you bring a small first-aid kit with common medication from Japan that you can use if needed while you are in the U.S.  It is much easier to take the common medications that you are used to when you become ill than trying to find the best U.S. equivalent.  For ideas of what you should include in your first-aid kit see the website below. See section on Staying Healthy in the U.S. below for more information on face/sickness/allergy masks.  These are not commonly worn in the U.S. so you should bring these with you from Japan if needed. 


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Staying Healthy in the U.S.

You should also be aware of the following recommendations for staying healthy and avoiding illness in the U.S.

Your time in the U.S. is very short and it is important students take general steps to ensure their good health.  This will help ensure you are less likely to become sick/ill and need to take time off from your research lab and or not participate in some program activities.  

  1. Get enough sleep! Students always underestimate how much sleep they will need.  If you aren't getting enough sleep at night you will become sick and it will probably be at a very inconvenient time for your research project. 
  2. Eat a well-balanced diet.  Be sure to eat regular meals and integrate fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods into your diet.  Don't eat fast-food/hamburgers everyday.  If you do this, you will become ill.  See our Food in the U.S. page for more information. 
  3. Exercise Regularly.  Regular physical exercise also helps us stay healthy and ensure we have the energy and focus needed when working in our research labs.  Take advantage of the free Rice University gym, walk/jog around the Rice University Loop in the mornings or evenings, swim in the hotel or campus pool, or do yoga using online videos.  Do you play a sport?  As your friends at Rice University if there is an intramural sports team or student club you can join or if they want to go to the gym and play basketball, badminton, or tennis with you.  There are lots of free activities and resources you can take advantage of while at Rice. 
  4. Honor Your Hobbies/Passions.  Mental health and personal well-being are just as important when abroad.  Is there are hobby or passion that you have that is a regular part of your day-to-day life in Japan?  Think about how you might integrate that into your life in the U.S.  For example:
    1. Join a Rice University student organization or club.  With over 250 clubs, there is something for everyone! 
    2. If you play a musical instrument consider bringing this with you to the U.S. to keep up your practice. Or, if you don't want to or can't bring your instrument with you, plan to attend some of the free music concerts at the Shepherd School of Music or get tickets to attend the Houston Symphony, Opera, or Ballet
    3. Do you like art?  Visit the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University or one of the many nearby museums that make up the Houston Museum District
    4. Do you have a passion for a favorite food/drink?  Visit local coffeehouses, teahouses, or restaurants that specialize in that area.  For example, one of the 2017 Nakatani RIES Japanese Fellows had a passion for coffee and brought his own special coffee beans, grinder, and brewer with him to the U.S. He was able to have his own, perfect cup of coffee each morning and also visit a local coffee roaster in Houston to purchase freshly roasted beans there.  
    5. Love sports? Attend a Rice University sports game (often free with your Rice ID) or purchase tickets for any professional sports teams who have games in Houston while you are in town including our football, soccer, baseball, or basketball teams. 
    6. Love live music?  Check out Houston's music scene.  The Houston Press website is a great resource for finding out about local bands, clubs, and concerts. 
    7. Love cultural and other community events?  Check out the weekly events calendar in the Houston Press or on the Visit Houston website to see what is happening in Houston. 
    8. Other hobbies/passions?  If you have other hobbies/passions you'd like information on email us to ask for information/advice on resources for that in Houston.  

Japan is one of just 22 countries/locations  in the world that is rabies free. Most rabies free countries/locations are islands.  When traveling to other countries, such as the U.S., it is important to be aware that un-vaccinated, typically wild or stray animals, may carry this deadly disease. Wild animals, squirrels, and stray cats and dogs in the U.S. may carry rabies and if you are bitten you will need to go to the hospital to get a series of painful and expensive rabies vaccinations.

  • Domesticated Pets:  Many Americans have pets and Rice is actually a dog-friendly campus.  This means you may see people bringing their dogs to work with them or people walking their dogs on Rice campus.  Domesticated pets (dogs and cats) should be vaccinated for rabies so it is very unlikely you would get sick from any interaction with them. However, before petting or touching a dog or cat, always ask for the owners permission. Some dogs and cats are very friendly and love meeting new people. Other dogs and cats may not want to be pet or touched by anyone they do not know well.
  • Stray Dogs and Cats:  You may also see stray dogs and cats in the U.S.  These may, or may not, be vaccinated. Since they live outside on their own, with no family to care for them, they may not be in good health.  If they have not been socialized around humans, stray animals may also be more likely to scratch or bite you since they may not trust that humans will not hurt them. It is best to avoid touching, picking up, or handling stray animals.  If you are concerned about a stray cat or dog in  your neighborhood or if you see someone abusing an animal, you can call the Harris County Animal Control Office, call the Houston Humane Society, or call the BARC Animal Shelter to ask for advice on what to do. Other cities in the U.S. will have similar offices/centers.
  • Squirrels and Other Wild Animals: Never feed or touch any wild animal in the U.S., including the squirrels on Rice University campus!  One of the top reasons that people call the Emergency Medical Services at Rice University campus is that they tried to pet, feed, or take a selfie with a squirrel and were scratched or bitten! The campus squirrels are very cute (and Rice's unofficial, second mascot), but they are still wild animals and you should not get too close.
  • Remember, if you are bitten by a wild/stray animal, including squirrels at Rice, you will need to seek medical attention, tell the doctor you were bitten by a wild/stray animal, and you will likely have to take a series of painful and expensive rabies vaccinations.
  • Fire Ants in the U.S.: Fire ants are now common in the U.S., and are particularly common in the South and West including in Houston.  These ants will bite if you disturb their nest. While the bites are painful, they are not typically dangerous unless you are allergic or are bitten many times.  When you are outside in Houston, particular at a park or on a grassy area, be sure you carefully look for fire ant nests/hills before you sit down.  These look like small mounds/hills of sand and if you poke them with a stick many ants will quickly come out to protect the nest. If you are bitten, you can use an over-the-counter antihistamine cream to reduce the itching/swelling but if you have any sort of allergic reaction you should immediately seek medical attention.
  • Mosquitoes in the U.S.:  Mosquitoes are common throughout the U.S. and are very prevalent in Houston.  Just like in many cities in Japan, it may be impossible to prevent all mosquito bites but there are steps you can take to avoid them. If you will be outside in the evening or early mornings it can be helpful to wear long pants and sleeves and/or use insect repellent with DEET. You can purchase insect repellent at any grocery store, pharmacy or department store like Target in the U.S. You should also always keep doors/windows closed or use screens to prevent mosquitoes from coming indoors. For more on how to avoid mosquito bites see the CDC website.
  • Lyme Disease: If you are in rural areas where there are many deer (not common in Houston) it is important to be careful of being bitten by deer ticks as these may carry Lyme disease.  Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Midwest and Northeast of the U.S. though it can also be found in rural areas throughout other parts of the country.  If you are hiking through woods or pastures in a rural areas where there may be deer, be sure to wear long pants/sleeves, tuck pants legs into your socks, and wear insect repellent. You should also check your body carefully for deer ticks at the end of the day.  For more on how to prevent tick bites see the CDC website.

In the U.S., we do not wear face/sickness masks when we are sick, have allergies, or for other minor reasons.  Face masks are only worn by doctors in a hospital (usually when they are in surgery) or by patients whose immune systems are compromised due to chemotherapy or other severe, life-threatening diseases. The actual name used for these in the U.S. is surgical masks

Instead, when sick, we will take over the counter medication for allergies or a cold, blow our noses (sniffling can be considered rude and distracting), cover our mouths when coughing, and wash our hands frequently. Or, we simply stay home if we are ill so we don't spread our illness others. Many people in the U.S. also carry hand sanitizer with them to use as needed throughout the day and, if you are sick with a cold, using hand sanitizer after coughing or sneezing could also help prevent transmission of your illness to others.  Click here for more on proper cold etiquette in the U.S. 

If you choose to wear a face/sickness mask in the U.S., you will likely receive some odd looks and/or be asked what is wrong out of concern that you have a serious illness. People may assume you have cancer or another life-threatening disease. You will also not be able to purchase face/sickness masks at the pharmacy or other stores in the U.S.  So, if you prefer to wear these you should bring an adequate supply with you from Japan.   

It is actually very, very surprising to most Americans how common wearing face masks is in Japan/Asia and you can find many articles on this topic for foreigners visiting Japan.  

At a university campus, where there are many people who live and work in close proximity to each other on a day-to-day basis, illnesses such as colds or flu can easily spread. To prevent the spread of illness, it is important to always use good hygiene practices and wash your hands frequently throughout the day, get sufficient sleep, and eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. 

For more, see the following pages from Rice's Emergency Management System:

Houston is much closer to the equator than Japan and the weather can be hot and humid almost all year round.  When outdoors in Houston, particularly during the hottest parts of the year from July – August, it is very important that students take steps to prevent heat and sunstroke.  

  • Wear light-weight clothing and dress in layers that you can easily take on outdoors or put on when you go indoors as the air conditioning inside many buildings can be quite cold. 
  • Use sunscreen and wear a hat and sunglasses when outdoors.  The sun will be much stronger in Houston than what you are accustomed to in Japan.  
  • Stay well-hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
    • Always carry a bottle of water with you, particularly when exercising or walking long distances outdoors.  You can purchase a refillable water bottle (some even have built in water filters) so you can easily refill this at any public water fountain or sink as  needed.  Tap water is safe to drink in the U.S. but you may prefer the taste of filtered water. 
  • Do not exercise outdoors during the hottest part of the day when the sun is highest/strongest.  This is typically from about 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM depending on the time of year. 
    • For example, if you would like to run around the Rice University campus loop, do this in the morning (about 6:00 AM – 9:00 AM) or evening (about 5:00 PM – 7:30 PM) when it is cooler.  

Tap water is safe to drink in the U.S. However, each city/town has its own municipal water supply and so the tap water may taste different in different part of the U.S. or even different towns in the same state.  If you do not like the taste of the tap water, you can purchase a water filter pitcher that  you can fill up in the sink and put in your fridge.  This way you have cold, filtered water readily available at your hotel.  You should also get in the habit of carrying a refillable water bottle with you in the U.S., and some even have built in water filters to.  This way, you can always refill your water bottle for free at any public drinking fountain or sink.  You can purchase water filter pitchers and many different types of water bottles at a home goods/department store like Target or many grocery stores too.  The Rice University bookstore may also have water bottles/coffee mugs that you can purchase if you would like a Rice one to use.  

If you prefer, you can also purchase bottled water at the grocery store or a home goods/department store like Target.  You can purchase a large flat (about 24 bottles) of water for a very inexpensive price.  However, these large flats can be difficult/heavy to carry.   Also, remember that vending machines and convenience stores are not as common in the U.S. as they are in Japan and can be quite expensive.  Most vending machines will have bottled water but the cost might be high, between $1.25 – $1.75 per bottle.  This is why it can be easier and more economical to carry your own fillable water bottle with you each day.  

Question: What do Americans eat when they are sick? Japanese people usually eat watery cooked rice or udon. I cannot find any stomach-friendly American food.

  • We eat the same thing soup – usually chicken soup! You can find canned soup at the grocery stores or prepared soup in the deli/prepared food section of the grocery store.
  • While there are not many udon restaurants in the U.S., it is becoming more common to find Ramen restaurants in many cities and these can be good places to eat when you are sick as, sometimes, they serve udon too. If you can't find a good ramen restaurant, look for Vietnamese Pho restaurant.  Pho has a clearer broth that can be very good to eat when you aren't feeling well. 
  • Remember, that most Americans don’t eat just plain, white rice or congee. So, this would not be a food that many Americans would think of when they are sick with a cold or the flu. Instead, people will make bland/plain foods at home to eat, such as soup or toast, and drink plenty of fluids to stay well hydrated.  If you have diarrhea, plain white rice is a recommended food along with bananas, applesauce, and plain toast.  This is called the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) diet. 
    • If you are ill, prepare a large pot of white rice or congee on the stove in your hotel room kitchen to heat up and eat throughout the day.  Bring this with you to campus if needed as you won't likely find plain white rice in restaurants.  
  • 15 Best Foods to East When You Are Sick
  • Exactly What to Eat When You Have a Cold or Flu
  • The Best and Worst Foods To Eat When You are Sick

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Resiliency and Mental Health/Well-Being Abroad

Studying, living, and conducting research abroad is inherently stressful. Every day you are faced with speaking in a foreign language, dealing with different social and cultural expectations, navigating the newness of everyday tasks (e.g. where do I buy groceries, navigating public transportation, where can I get a haircut?, etc.). At the same time you are also conducting research in a new lab group where you may be working on a topic you have little prior familiarity with and often must try to make progress on your project in a very limited time-period.  Just one of these things is hard, all taken together can some days feel a bit overwhelming.

For more on this, see the section on Resiliency and Well-Being Abroad under the Culture Shock and Re-Entry section on our Intercultural Communication and Skills page.

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Medical Vocabulary

If you need to seek medical care or explain your symptoms/illness to someone in English it may be helpful to refer to this Medical Vocabulary & Phrases sheet (PDF) in English and Japanese.


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