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Why the Samsung Medical Center is not to blame for the spread of MERS disease

It is one of the countrys most intelligent buildings. It stands 20 stories high, is rooted five stories underground and sees more than 8,500 patients pe...

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|Jun 17|magazine12 min read

It is one of the country’s most intelligent buildings. It stands 20 stories high, is rooted five stories underground and sees more than 8,500 patients per day. Most recently, however, it has been blamed for the spread of the deadly MERS disease in South Korea.

Who is it? The Samsung Medical Center.

Regarded as “the jewel” of the country’s medical service, the center is a 1,306-bed hospital owned by the famous Samsung conglomerate, devoted to its model of being patient-centered.

The center is also where a 35-year-old man whose symptoms were misdiagnosed as pneumonia, languished for three days in an overcrowded emergency room and hallway, exposing dozens.

RELATED TOPIC: Can cellphone tracking slow the spread of MERS in South Korea?

Now, experts from the World Health Organization and South Korea have confirmed and traced 162 cases of MERS back to that patient at Samsung, calling him a “superspreader” and scrutinizing the hospital for its operations.

Historically regarded as the nation’s best hospital, the mistakes made by Samsung Medical Center are now the focus of much that has gone wrong to escalate South Korea’s MERS crisis—the worst outbreak since its initial appearance in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

But if we are going to isolate Samsung Medical Center as the cause for the spread of MERS in the country, we should also take a look at the entire health system in South Korea. For if it is the system that is flawed, can one hospital then really be to blame?

The Samsung Medical Center can’t be as ineffective as it is being made out to be seeing as how its staff diagnosed the country’s first case of MERS on May 20, attributing the discovery to their medical skills and expertise.

Meanwhile, it is believed inefficient emergency room management is the cause of the patient being left to wait for days in various parts of the emergency ward, potentially exposing the virus to an estimated 900 staff, patients and visitors.

It was not until May 29, when the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Samsung Medical Center about the patient’s possible link to the first discovered case that the emergency room doctors were forced to react.

Yet, an over-crowded hospital condition is the norm for South Korea.

RELATED TOPIC: What you need to know about the MERS disease in South Korea

Low medical fees mean that hospitals must treat as many patients as possible to stay profitable, and therefore, there is no threshold. In addition, larger hospitals also get more crowded as family members and private nurses that are hired stay with patients. It is a social etiquette for South Koreans to visit hospitalized relatives, friends and colleagues, as well—all of these factors leading to the risk of close exposures in the health care setting.

“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,” Choi Gyu-jin, researcher with the Center for Health and Social Change told The Hankyoreh.

But conflicting statements from the World Health Organization further add to the logic not to place sole blame on Samsung Medical Center.

While initially attributing the cause of the spread to Samsung’s misdiagnosis and strategy, the World Health Organization later released a report explaining the reasons for cause of spread of the MERS disease.

“Conditions and cultural traditions specific to Korea have likely also played a role in the outbreak’s rapid spread,” the report reads. “The accessibility and affordability of health care in Korea encourage ‘doctor-shopping;’ patients frequently consult specialists in several facilities before deciding on a first-choice facility.”

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If there is no stability in regards to which doctors sees which patient, how can the medical history of a patient be properly tracked, and within a reasonable amount of time?

“The Samsung Medical Center is a national hospital in the sense that there are no regional boundaries in medical service in the country and everyone wants treatment there,” Kim Woo-joo, head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, reported to the New York Times. “The MERS outbreak was a stress test of our medical system, revealing its problems.”

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