Bringing Smiles to Patients Through the Power of Travel
TRAVEL DOCTOR Inc. is using the power of medical care to bring joy to those who have given up on traveling, prescribing trips to patients regardless of their age, gender, or type of illness.
A Childhood Dream Born of Illness and the Loss of a Loved One
I've suffered from asthma from a young age, and I was in and out of hospital throughout my childhood. Whenever I had an attack, my father, who was a doctor, would get my inhaler ready and stay by my side the whole time. Having someone there for me during such rough times was really comforting and made me realize how amazing doctors are.
On top of having asthma, I lost my mother at the age of five. Even though I was young, it made me realize that life doesn't last forever. Having experienced illness and the loss of someone so important to me, I wanted to be there for people during times of sadness and loneliness. That's why I decided to become a doctor.
A Desire to Make Terminal Patients' Last Dreams Come True
As a doctor working on the front lines taking care of countless patients, I started to constantly think about what the best type of end-of-life care would be. The thought of the last thing someone sees being their hospital room ceiling was somewhat saddening. So, I started asking the patients I was looking after at the time what it was that they wanted to do. Everyone had their respective dream they wanted to fulfil, be it taking a bath in a hot spring, going home to visit their family's graves, or attending their grandchild's wedding.
Even those undergoing end-of-life care can step outside and enjoy something out of the ordinary, which I think is just as valuable as what we think of as "traveling." I started spending my days looking into whether I could work as a "travel doctor," practicing a new type of medicine that helps people get out of the hospital.
The Brutal Honesty that Inspired an Entrepreneurial Spirit
I realized that if I wanted to help make patients' dreams come true, I couldn't just think about doing something—I had to act. So, I got involved in volunteer work helping terminal patients to travel. I was using my days off to take patients on trips when a more senior doctor pointed something out to me. He said, "4,000 people die every day. Even if you could take a patient traveling every single week, that's a max of 50 people per year. You could spend your whole life doing that, and it still wouldn't amount to the number that die in a single day. Are you sure you aren't just doing it to make yourself feel better?" I was struck by how right he was, and my mindset shifted into entrepreneur mode. I started to think, "At the end of the day, it's futile if I can only fulfil the dreams of the people right in front of me. I need to create a system that enables lots of patients to travel." But despite working as a physician for a number of years, I was a complete novice when it came to management. I left the university hospital I was working at and reenrolled in graduate school to study business administration. I wanted to create a framework that would last even 100 years from now.
Grand Prize Win During Grad School Leads to New Start
A few months after entering graduate school, I happened to see an advertisement for TOKYO STARTUP GATEWAY 2019 and decided to apply. I never expected that I would win the grand prize. I was truly shocked, but it also gave me confidence knowing that there are a lot of other people who feel the way I do.
The contest awarded me prize money and funding, which I was able to use to finance my activities. I also got to participate in the Acceleration Program, which gave advice on how to start a business. But above all, when television writer Suzuki Osamu—a popular personality in Japan—who was on the screening panel at the time cheered me on, I really felt that I had been able to reach people completely removed from the field of medicine with my message. I was faced with the feeling that I had to take advantage of this chance to do the work I wanted. First, I started a crowdfunding campaign to raise more funds so that people could see patients' dreams of travel coming true. I was able to reach my goal of raising ¥3 million, and made the decision to launch my business, TRAVEL DOCTOR Inc., in December 2020.
Discovering Travel Doctors' Greater Potential Through the Tabikana Project
Our operations were limited right after launch due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, and I was left wondering if there was anything else I could do. That's when I decided to start the Tabikana project to help make travel (tabi) come true (kanaeru). With money raised through crowdfunding, we opened up applications for people looking to make their dream trips a reality. We've already had several success stories, including a patient who wanted to visit a hot spring. In June 2021, we took them and their family to the seaside city of Atami, known for its baths. It was great to see them enjoy themselves on the day of the trip, of course, but the family's subsequent reaction to their passing was also different from any I had seen when I was working in medicine. Most families back then seemed full of regret. The families of those we've brought on trips, meanwhile, have looked sad yet somewhat contented, knowing that they were able to make one last trip with their loved one. Seeing this, I feel like I've found greater potential in my work as a travel doctor. It's not just for the patients; it's beneficial for the souls of their families too.
Building a New Million-Trip Platform
That's not to say that everything went smoothly as we helped fulfil these trips. We faced a lot of troubles, be they the rigors of getting permission from a patient's attending physician or the difficulty of planning travel for a terminally ill patient, which is not your usual trip. For now, I'd like to build up experience through the Tabikana project so that we can create an environment that gives families and primary caregivers peace of mind when sending their patients off with us. There are still plenty of issues to be addressed, like the amount of time it takes before trips can be taken, the costs involved, and our cooperative framework, but you can't ask a terminally ill patient to wait a bit longer. That's why we're scrambling to have our service ready by the end of 2021.
Ultimately, I'd like to create a platform capable of making a million patients' travel dreams come true each year with a system that allows for international as well as domestic travel.
A Word for Budding Entrepreneurs
If there's something you want to do, taking any related action can be beneficial. For me, my experience volunteering and taking part in the TOKYO STARTUP GATEWAY was huge in helping me make progress toward starting my business. If you're feeling stuck regarding something you want to achieve or do, talking it out with someone is a good place to start. It requires courage to take that first step when doing something new. But by challenging yourself and meeting a variety of different people, you'll find more and more individuals who are interested in your ideas and it might help pave the path toward starting your business.
Representative, TRAVEL DOCTOR Inc.
TOKYO STARTUP GATEWAY
*This article was originally published as an interview on Tokyo Sogyo NET.