Hospitals scramble to make more room for critically ill
The national health care system is struggling to get a grasp on the situation as the recent surge in daily Covid-19 cases quickly deplete I.C.U. beds in hospitals across the nation.
A total of 78.8 percent of intensive care unit (I.C.U.) beds reserved for Covid-19 patients were being used, amounting to 909 beds occupied out of 1,154 total as of Tuesday.
In Seoul, the percentage of occupied I.C.U. beds reserved for Covid patients rose to 90.7. The capital's five largest hospitals had only six I.C.U. beds left as of Tuesday morning.
The Korean Society of Critical Care Medicine held a press conference Wednesday and requested that the government "review the option of limiting I.C.U. admittance for patients with a low recovery rate."
"An 89-year-old who tested positive for the coronavirus is admitted to a big general hospital's I.C.U. while a 35-year-old pregnant woman who is 39 weeks along in her pregnancy needs to be admitted to an ICU but cannot find an unoccupied bed,” said the committee.
The phrase “patients with a low recovery rate” refers to patients suffering from terminal conditions such as end-stage cancer with a life expectancy of less than six months and those who have less than a 20 percent survival rate after severe trauma.
The government in early November issued an administrative order that requires 22 large private general hospitals to raise their number of available sickbeds for Covid-19 patients, opening up some 2,222 ICU beds starting Friday.
Most critical Covid-19 patients get admitted to one of 45 larger general hospitals. Of these, 33 are private and 12 are public.
But experts say that merely forcing hospitals to take in more Covid-19 patients because they have the infrastructure is not a sustainable solution.
“Intensive care units for Covid patients is especially difficult to expand because there are so many other non-Covid patients who are also critically ill and need to be treated in the I.C.U.,” said Samsung Medical Center's Dr. Seo Ji-young.
“This puts both Covid and non-Covid patients in danger.”
Another issue is the dearth of workers and resources in I.C.U.s.
According to Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service’s 2021 evaluation of 287 general hospitals across the country, only 47 percent of the facilities had physicians and nurses dedicated to their I.C.U.s and 38 percent of the hospitals were not properly equipped with medical machines and resources in their I.C.U.s.
Hospitals with I.C.U.s are also currently operating on a loss.
“One intensive care unit sees about 100 million won in losses annually,” said Hong Seok-kyeong, a member of the Korean Society of Critical Care Medicine.
“The more I.C.U. beds a hospital has, the more losses they face — that’s the system right now.”
The number of daily cases exceeded 5,000 on Wednesday for the first time and the number of critically ill Covid-19 patients surpassed 700.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Korea has an average of 7.1 beds per critically ill patient. While this is higher than the OECD’s average of 3.5 beds per critically ill, the country is still struggling greatly from a dearth of beds.
Experts say that the best solution now is to build alternative setups.
“There are limits to expanding I.C.U. beds in hospitals,” said Park Eun-cheol, professor of preventative medicine at Yonsei University. “The best way [to address the situation] right now would be to empty an entire hospital for critically ill Covid patients or construct new facilities.”
BY SHIN SEONG-SHIK, LEE JIAN [email@example.com]