(Bloomberg) — The man who brought MERS to South Korea visited Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital the same day he was discharged from another center. The 68-year-old visited two more hospitals before being correctly diagnosed and quarantined.
Doctors reviewing how the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus went on to infect at least another 125 people in the Asian nation say a reliance on general hospitals for medical care and a tendency for patients to shop around for treatment helped fan the respiratory virus’s spread.
“This was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Lee Jae Ho, a professor at the Catholic University of Korea’s College of Medicine in Seoul who’s studied the nation’s primary-care system. “Had the first patient initially seen his own primary-care physician who knew he’d visited the Middle East, the virus would have been quickly contained.”
MERS, which arrived in South Korea a month ago, has highlighted weaknesses in a health care system that has the latest medical technology, but is hampered by overcrowded hospital waiting-rooms and inadequate primary care. Now the nation is grappling with an epidemic that’s killed 11 people and which Morgan Stanley said Monday could slow economic growth by as much as 0.8 of a percentage point this year.
Emergency rooms are where almost all of the MERS infections occurred, Jeong Eun Kyeong, an official at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in Seoul Thursday. A map tracing cases shows several infected people seeded the virus in multiple hospitals and clinics.
“Patients have been exposed to this type of epidemic in emergency rooms and I think we’re in a situation where we should craft fresh policies on this,” Kwon Duk Cheol, an official at South Korea’s health ministry, told the briefing.
A World Health Organization-led mission assessing the situation recommended authorities immediately step up infection prevention and control measures across the country and quiz patients presenting with fever or respiratory symptoms for possible contact with a MERS patient, who had been to facilities where MERS patients have been treated, and who had been in the Middle East prior to falling ill.
Almost half of cases can be traced to the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district, one of the five largest hospitals in the country. The Samsung Electronics Co.-affiliated facility, with almost 2,000 beds, offers insights into the challenges underlying South Korea’s health system, said Song Hyoung Gon, a specialist in emergency medicine who worked there from 2002 to 2011.
“Many people view Samsung as the epicenter of MERS, but the spread has to do with a structural problem, which is that too many people prefer big-name, general hospitals to neighborhood doctors and beds,” said Song, who now oversees the emergency room at the public Icheon Hospital, south of Seoul. “To them neighborhood clinics pale in glamor compared to big hospitals with doctors who will pop up on TV.”