Samsung Medical Center to partially close, but is it too little too late?

Posted on : 2015-06-15 16:41 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Since the outbreak of MERS, the central government and the hospital have made crucial missteps in containing the virus’s spread
 on the day the hospital was partially shut down to contain the spread of MERS
on the day the hospital was partially shut down to contain the spread of MERS

On June 14, Samsung Medical Center acknowledged the failure of its efforts to contain the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and took measures to partially close its facilities, but Samsung Medical Center is being criticized for shutting the barn doors after the cows have been stolen.

If the South Korean government and the Samsung Medical Center had conducted a full epidemiological survey and instituted a sweeping quarantine from the beginning, they would have been able to stop the spread of the disease. Instead, they failed to take action until ambulance staff, security guards, and doctors were infected.

During a MERS countermeasures meeting held in Seoul on June 14, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said that it was not Samsung Medical Center but rather the central government that should be playing the leading role.

“Samsung Medical Center was basically excluded from the government’s efforts to contain MERS. This situation was brought about by allowing the hospital to manage itself,” Park said.

“On June 13, we asked the Ministry of Health and Welfare to quickly set up a joint special investigation team in which the central government, the city of Seoul, and experts from the private sector can participate.”

Effectively, Seoul Metropolitan Government has cast a vote of no confidence on the ability of Samsung Medical Center to handle and contain MERS.

Medical experts agree that, after the government saw primary infections spread at St. Mary‘s Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province because of a failure in the initial epidemiological survey and quarantine measures, it repeated this mistake and allowed MERS to spread at Samsung Medical Center.

 June 14. (by Lee Jong-geun
June 14. (by Lee Jong-geun

It is of critical importance to carry out a comprehensive epidemiological survey as quickly as possible, but Samsung Medical Center’s negligence was confirmed once more with the infection of an ambulance worker (case no. 137) and a doctor (case no. 138).

“We are planning to quarantine hospital buildings or the entire hospital where infections have occurred,” said Minister of Health and Welfare Moon Hyung-pyo on June 2, signaling an aggressive intervention. After this, while most hospitals and hospital buildings were put under quarantine, Samsung Medical Center had been an exception until now, even though 72 of the 145 nationwide cases had occurred there.

One critic of the government’s actions is Woo Seok-gyun, chair of the policy committee for the Korean Federation of Medical Activist Groups for Health Rights.

“The government does not appear to have received the relevant documents from Samsung Medical Center until June 3 or to have initiated its epidemiological survey until about June 9. Because the government’s epidemiological survey was delayed for more than 10 days after May 29, it resulted in doing little more than verifying the routes of transmission rather than preventing that transmission from occurring,” Woo said.

Chung Hyeong-jun, chief of the policy bureau with the Association for Physicians for Humanism, believes that the problem begin with the blind faith that the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the government’s MERS task force placed in the authority of the Samsung Medical Center.

 staff photographer)
staff photographer)

After all, Chung Do-ryeon, the head of the department of infectious diseases and internal medicine at Samsung Medical Center who made the controversial remark that it was not the hospital but the government that had failed, is one of South Korea’s preeminent authorities on infectious diseases. On top of that, it was Samsung Medical Center that diagnosed the first patient with MERS, despite the incredulity of the Centers for Disease Control.

It could have been because of this authority - and the powerful backing of Samsung - that the government was unable to quickly revoke the hospital’s right to contain and control the disease.

“There is a huge difference between a hospital’s infectious disease division, which treats infectious diseases, and the epidemiology of infectious diseases, which determines the causes and shuts down the routes of transmission. There is no denying that the most authoritative body in South Korea in the area of epidemiological surveys is the Centers for Disease Control. Assigning that work to Samsung Medical Center was a mistake,” Woo said.

The question of authority aside, another crucial error was assigning the task of managing infectious diseases to a for-profit hospital, at which the question of management is always an issue.

Samsung Medical Center is a huge hospital that is visited by more than 60,000 patients each year. It has 2,000 hospital beds, and if the cancer center is included, it is similar in size to the 3,000-bed Asan Medical Center, the largest hospital in Asia.

“If Samsung Medical Center stops admitting patients for two or three weeks, it will lose 100 billion won (US$89.49 million). It must have been difficult for the hospital to implement sweeping quarantine measures and to partially shut down,” Woo said. Woo believes it would have been impossible for the hospital to partially shut its doors if it were not for the unprecedented public outcry.

While Samsung Medical Center may have accused the government of failing in its containment of MERS, it cannot lay all of the blame at the government‘s door. The hospital’s first mistake was in its management of direct and indirect contact with the 14th patient, who was admitted on May 27.

“Even if one sympathizes with the awkward position in which Samsung Medical Center finds itself, what happened after May 29, when the 14th patient was diagnosed with MERS, was clearly the hospital’s fault,” said Choi Gyu-jin, researcher with the Center for Health and Social Change.

Samsung Medical Center failed to immediately quarantine the medical staff and employees who had been in the emergency room with the 14th patient between May 27 and May 29.

Reports had already confirmed that the 35th patient, a doctor at the hospital, continued to see patients until the morning of May 31. It turns out that another infected doctor continued seeing patients until June 10.

“Controlling infection among medical professionals and hospital employees is as fundamental as it gets. Samsung Medical Center’s failure to quarantine doctors and ambulance staff even though they had been in direct contact with numerous patients is an absolute disgrace for the hospital,” Choi said.


By Jeon Jung-yoon and Im In-tack, staff reporters

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