SEOUL (Reuters) - The man who became South Korea’s MERS patient number 14 waited two-and-a-half days in the emergency ward for a bed to open at a prestigious Seoul hospital – not an unusually long time for the city’s top medical centers.
By the time the 35-year-old was suspected of infection with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), nearly 900 hospital staff, visitors and patients had been through the emergency ward.
Of those, 55 were infected with MERS, including four elderly patients who have died while the rest are in quarantine, putting the hospital at the center of an outbreak that has infected 122, with 10 dead.
South Korea has a sophisticated healthcare system and universal insurance. But there are gaps, including the custom of waiting for days for a coveted bed at a top hospital, as well as the practice of families making lengthy visits to hospitalized relatives, often providing de facto nursing care.
Both are blamed for helping spread the often-deadly MERS virus, prompting calls for change. South Korea’s Health Ministry has promised to fix the emergency room bottlenecks.
“We will make a plan to stop the emergency room from being used as the waiting room for those who are trying to be admitted,” Kwon Deok-cheol, the health ministry’s chief policy official said on Thursday, without giving details.
Before his MERS diagnosis, patient 14 was hospitalized in the same ward in Pyeongtaek city, 65 km (40 miles) southwest of Seoul, as the country’s first MERS patient, who had developed the illness after returning from a trip to the Middle East in early May but was also not diagnosed at the time.
Suffering from fever, patient 14 visited another hospital in the city, spending three days there before his doctor advised him to go to a bigger facility.
The man rode a bus to Seoul in the hope of being treated at the prestigious Samsung Medical Center, founded by a Samsung Group foundation, where the conglomerate’s 73-year-old patriarch remains hospitalized after a heart attack more than a year ago.
The patient felt so poorly on arrival in Seoul on May 27 that he called an ambulance, which brought him to the hospital in the city’s wealthy Gangnam district.
Doctors treated him in different parts of the emergency ward for symptoms of pneumonia while waiting for an available room, according to the hospital. The patient, who slept on a bed, was not considered a MERS risk because he had not been to the Middle East and his contact with the first patient was not then known.
It was only when authorities notified the hospital on the evening of May 29 that they suspected the man had been exposed to the first MERS patient in Pyeongtaek that he was moved from the emergency ward and diagnosed the next day.
“He came here with symptoms of pneumonia, but had been waiting to be admitted, just like other patients,” a hospital official said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
South Korea is not short of hospital beds - the overall number per 1,000 people is more than twice the OECD average according to the most recent statistics - but prestigious Seoul hospitals are magnets for patients from around the country.
The average wait for admission to the Samsung Medical Center at this time of year is about three days, as many older people become sick with the change of season, the hospital official said. The most urgent cases take priority.
Among MERS cases traced to patient 14 is a pregnant woman who went to the ER to visit her mother, who was there with an upset stomach, according to the health ministry. The pregnant woman’s parents were also infected in the emergency ward.
“In South Korea, patients’ relatives follow in emergency rooms ... Look at the pregnant woman’s case. We need to look into every single problem as we are dealing with MERS,” an official at the Korean Hospital Association said.
“The system is still weak compared with the size of the industry.”
Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson