Japanese Government Moving Towards Patents for Medical Procedures

In early April 2003, the Japanese government took its first steps towards granting patents to medical procedures. A council for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry drafted a plan that would allow patents to be granted for medical techniques associated with regenerative medicine such as autographs, or skin grafts. Prior to this, Japan had allowed patent rights only for medicines and medical instruments but not for medical procedures. This step towards granting patent privileges for medical techniques is hoped to spark greater incentive for research and development of biotechnological and medical products in Japan.

However, this revolutionary stride taken by the Japanese government is not without its controversy. Many medical professionals are worried that the issuance of patents for medical procedures will likely increase the costs of medical treatment while at the same time lower standards of safety. With patents granted for medical techniques, doctors and other healthcare providers would have to pay for the use of patented procedures. This may then lead to less safety due to physicians avoiding patented procedures for less innovative, unpatented techniques.

Other issues that are currently being considered are the backlog of patent applications at Japan’s Patent Office. Japan receives approximately 400,000 new patent applications each year, and to date the Patent Office has a backlog of 500,000 cases. In order to meet new demands for patent issuance to medical procedures, many believe that the shortage of qualified employees at the Patent Office must first be addressed.

This step towards granting patents to medical procedures, although highly debated at this time, is believed by industry experts to be the right choice for Japan. In order to protect the country’s interests in medical and biotechnological development, greater measures are needed to build and maintain the confidence in Japan of potential and current investors and researchers.