Health insurance providers have paid out an estimated 9.3 billion yen ($82 million) in claims for a cream used by some people as a cosmetic beauty treatment, a survey by an industry body has found.
Demand for the Hirudoid branded ointment, normally prescribed to treat atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, spiked as consumers began to see it as a cheap and effective cosmetic skin moisturizer after it was touted in magazines and on the internet.
The huge bill was run up by consumers in 2015-2016 despite public health insurance law allowing only prescriptions for the treatment of illnesses, injuries, and for deaths and childbirths to be reimbursed.
After identifying the problem, the health ministry is studying countermeasures, such as restricting the prescription of Hirudoid, or excluding it from insurance coverage when it is prescribed alone as doctors normally recommend it as part of a raft of treatments, ministry officials said.
Hirudoid, considered an "ultimate beauty cream," costs 1,185 yen for 50 grams, but consumers only need to pay about 360 yen, or 30 percent of the original cost, when reimbursed through their insurance policy.
An umbrella group for corporate health insurance providers, known as Kenporen, investigated purchase receipts of cases in which Hirudoid was prescribed alone, and found a big jump in the number of prescriptions going to women.
From October 2015 to September 2016, 39,312 prescriptions were made for men aged between 20 and 59, while 164,377 were for women in the same age bracket. Prescriptions of Hirudoid for women increased 17.3 percent from a year earlier, whereas that for men rose just 7.9 percent.
It was discovered that in many cases doctors prescribed Hirudoid for patients who claimed to be suffering from dry skin, but a Kenporen representative said this may be code for people seeking the cream for "beauty purposes."
A 37-year-old housewife in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, said she became aware of Hirudoid after a female celebrity wrote about it on her blog, "I got the beauty cream at a hospital cheaply. My skin got smooth as if it were a high-class (cosmetics) maker's a product," the blog post read.
After requesting the cream from her dermatologist, the woman was prescribed five tubes, without the doctor even asking about her symptoms.
The woman said she was able to make a significant saving as she had been using a beauty cream that cost 5,000 yen per tube.
A dermatologist working at a hospital in the city of Osaka said some 10 women each month request the cream.
"I think there is a moral collapse among the patients. It is extremely problematic to purchase medicine using the medical insurance program for beauty purposes," the dermatologist said.
But the doctor added, "We cannot say no (to a prescription request) when the patient says he or she is having terribly dry skin."
However, there are concerns any crackdown may have ramifications for those who need the cream for genuine purposes.
"I am worried that it might become difficult to obtain this medicine," said a Tokyo woman in her 30s who has been using Hirudoid to treat a skin condition.