Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Medical missteps multiply

The gloom of SARS has cast a shadow over the entire nation. The pressure on health care workers is especially heavy. A Mackay Memorial Hospital doctor developed a fever while on a trip to Japan earlier this month, unleashing a panic in that country. He probably never imagined that his vacation would rock Taipei-Tokyo relations and necessitate a formal apology from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Japan.

Both the doctor and the hospital said he had no fever before his long-scheduled trip and that he had not taken SARS to Japan. Chou said he developed a fever on the second day of his trip, but thought it was a cold caused by the chilly weather and so he took drugs to suppress the fever.

But how could Chou not suspect he might have been infected? He worked in the hospital's emergency ward. Even though he did not attend SARS patients, he still had a higher chance of infection than most people. If it really did not occur to him that he might have contracted SARS, then, as a doctor, he appears to have been too lax in his vigilance. This is a far cry from what the general public expects from a doctor. An insufficient level of alertness and self-protection were certainly the reasons behind the hospital outbreaks that have beset Taiwan.

Chou's lack out caution has undeniably caused anxiety in Japan. Having experienced the pain of a virus invasion from China and Hong Kong, we can only hope that Chou's unintentional lapse will not lead to an outbreak in Japan.

So far, no apparent SARS outbreak has been reported in Japan, but Japanese often wear masks in the streets. Their motive is an altruistic one -- to avoid spreading cold and flu to others. This is very different from the self-serving motive in SARS-affected areas like Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. This is also due to the different levels of civilization and social conditions. The uproar over Chou's Japan trip has highlighted the insufficient professionalism in this nation's medical circles, as well as the weak altruism in society.

The Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Kaohsiung is now almost entirely closed due to a SARS outbreak there. In the middle of this crisis, more than 120 doctors and nurses there are quitting their jobs. This is comparable to a soldier fleeing in the face of an enemy. The hospital has been famous for its efficient management, but now it is facing a manpower shortages. Yeh Chin-chuan (葉金川), former director of Taipei City's Bureau of Health, joined the Hoping Hospital staff last month to help them fight the outbreak there. Perhaps PFP Vice Chairman Chang Chao-hsiung (張昭雄), who is a former president of Chang Gung University, should emulate him by joining the fight against SARS at his old employer.

The fact that SARS outbreaks are occurring in hospitals, which are the strongholds in the anti-SARS campaign, is an indication of the insufficient training and professional ethics in the nation's medical institutions. It is also reflection of the lack of adequate protective gear and equipment in these hospitals. There is not enough horizontal support between hospitals, and the reporting and coordination between hospitals and the government is not quick enough.

All these factors have damaged the nation's overall capabilities in the anti-SARS campaign. These problems should be rectified immediately.

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