SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea needs to train for potential infectious disease outbreaks worse than COVID-19 and detailed treatment guidelines, as risks of more frequent such outbreaks rise and public sickbeds remain tight, a senior government official said.
South Korea’s early success to tame the novel coronavirus through aggressive contact tracing and testing has been touted by disease experts worldwide as gold standard of how to effectively control infectious disease.
Its early state intervention limited widespread community infections and helped hospitals keep sickbeds available for severely affected patients.
But its extremely low rate of public hospital beds - only 10% of total - remains a potential weak spot, as the country continues to battle small but persistent outbreaks and front-line public healthcare workers suffer burnout after more than six months of treating COVID-19 patients.
“I think we will see more such disease outbreaks that are more highly transmissible and fatal,” National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) President Dr Kim Yong-ik told Reuters.
“We need to be prepared by running simulation exercises on various scenarios: how to switch the existing hospitals, where to send the medical staff, or how to categorize the patients.”
South Korea had the second highest number of hospital beds, next to Japan, in 2017 with 12.3 beds per 1,000 population, double the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) average of 4.7, according to an OECD report.
But public hospital beds account for just 10% of total, far below most advanced countries: according to NHIS, the rate is 100% in Britain, 63% in France, 26% in Japan and 25% in the United States.
Kim said more public hospitals and staff were needed to prevent a resurgence as winter comes.
“Early state intervention helped contain the spread of the virus, but things could get worse when the winter season starts and it’s very important for healthcare workers not to get exhausted before then,” Kim said.
Kim Dae-ha, a spokesman for the Korean Medical Association which represents all doctors in South Korea, said the low proportion of public sickbeds and doctors has not been a problem as privately owned clinics have as much influence as the public ones.
“South Korea’s efforts (to clamp down on COVID-19) have been called a success, despite a lack of public medical facilities. This evaluation proves the private hospitals and doctors are second to none,” he told Reuters.
Rather than investing in doctors in specific fields for public hospitals, it is more efficient to support existing private doctors and hospitals, he added.
South Korea’s national healthcare insurance, which covers the entire 50 million population, has so far spent 132 billion won ($109 million) treating COVID-19 patients and the amount is likely to rise above 200 billion won this year, according to NHIS.
That’s equivalent to $3,600 for a mild patient and $10,000 for a serious one, who can cost up to $58,000 to treat.
The country has reported a total of 13,551 confirmed cases and 289 deaths, sharply lower than most countries.
Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.