Ministry takes action to improve health care

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Ministry takes action to improve health care

The Ministry of Health and Welfare on Tuesday announced measures to revamp the domestic health care system based on loopholes found in May and June last year, just a week after authorities declared an official end to the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The virus, which infected 186 people, served as a wake-up call for Korea’s quarantine system.

The ministry said it will strengthen controls on emergency rooms, restricting non-patients from entering in an effort to prevent the mass spread of infections. Guardians of the ill will also be prohibited from certain wards in the ER, such as the intensive care unit and quarantined areas.

Only one family member can accompany a patient in other emergency room areas, which are typically crowded by friends or family visiting or staying the night to care for their loved ones.

Among the 186 MERS cases, 88 patients were infected in emergency rooms.

The Health Ministry added that it will reinforce a system to diagnose and isolate infected patients. In order to do that, patients will be grouped into five categories depending on the urgency of their case. Currently, they are either classified as emergency or non-emergency.

Patients whose conditions are considered less severe, level 4 or 5, will be transferred from large hospitals to small or midsize hospitals to ease congestion in emergency rooms.

To control infection, the government has vowed to expand infrastructure in hospitals and currently plans to install 600 infection-control areas, managed by a doctor, a nurse and a staff member. Infection-control areas will first be established in hospitals with more than 200 sickbeds and gradually expanded to smaller hospitals.

The ministry will also revamp the structure of multi-sickbed rooms, restricting the maximum number of sickbeds in a room to four from the current six.

“We will implement the new policy in stages because it would be problematic to remodel or repair all the facilities within a hospital,” a Health Ministry official said during a briefing. “We plan to apply the changes to a newly built hospital first and then expand to other hospitals.”

On Dec. 23, the ministry declared an official end to the MERS outbreak, which ultimately killed 38 people, infected 186 and led 16,700 people to be quarantined.

The mortality rate for the outbreak was only 20.4 percent, about half that in outbreaks elsewhere in the world. Most patients who died succumbed to underlying diseases or conditions. The last patient died Nov. 25.

MERS hit Korea when a 68-year-old man tested positive for the disease on May 20, shortly after he returned from a business trip to the Middle East.

More than 80 hospitals visited by patients confirmed with MERS were shut down and had their names released to the public. More than 2,000 schools nationwide were temporarily closed and the domestic tourism industry suffered with a colossal decline in foreign visitors, particularly from China.

BY KIM SO-HEE, HWANG SOO-YEON [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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