Establish system to secure enough hospital beds for future pandemics

The novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the medical care system. Persistent efforts must be made to resolve the relevant issues.

A set of measures has been compiled by the government to prepare for future pandemics of infectious disease. The main pillar of the plans is to establish a system in which prefectures and medical institutions conclude agreements ahead of time to secure hospital beds. The government plans to submit bills to the extraordinary Diet session this autumn to revise the Infectious Diseases Control Law and other related legislation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused repeated shortages of hospital beds, and the administrative response has lagged behind. It is clear that the central and local governments were inadequately prepared.

Under the new measures, hospitals that conclude agreements with prefectural governments will be required to provide medical care in the event of an outbreak of infectious disease. In addition to public hospitals, university hospitals and others that are approved as “advanced treatment hospitals” to provide high levels of medical care are expected to be subject to the new measures.

There have been cases in which local governments and hospitals have voluntarily entered into agreements to secure hospital beds. It is understandable that the central government intends to institutionalize this approach and promptly designate medical centers throughout the country.

Prefectural governors will be able, under the measures, to issue recommendations or instructions and publicize the name of a hospital if it does not comply with an agreement. It will also be possible to revoke facilities’ status, such as that of an advanced treatment hospital, which is entitled to receive preferential treatment fees.

Some hospitals have been reluctant to accept patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite receiving subsidies to secure beds. It is inevitable that strict measures will be taken to solve the problem.

However, whether these measures will be effective is questionable. Public hospitals have already played a significant role in COVID-19 treatment so far. Even if penalties are imposed, such a plan alone is unlikely to lead to a significant increase in the number of hospital beds.

In contrast, private hospitals — which account for 80% of all hospitals — will not be obliged under the new measures to conclude such agreements with prefectural governments. Whether they cooperate in medical treatment will be left to the judgment of the hospitals, as it is now.

Medical institutions have a critical role to play in protecting people’s lives and health. They are urged to actively respond to society’s demand to strengthen the medical system.

It is important to secure medical personnel so that many medical institutions, including private ones, can participate in the treatment of infectious diseases. In addition to enhancing doctors’ training regarding infectious diseases, the government should expand the system to dispatch the necessary number of nurses and other medical personnel to areas where infection has spread.

The government plans to establish an infectious disease control agency in fiscal 2023 as a control tower for countermeasures against such diseases. It also plans to establish an organization of experts modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States.

The role and authority of each organization must be considered in detail, to establish a system capable of dealing with crises.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 6, 2022)