• Kyodo

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More than a quarter of the hospitals designated as special disaster facilities may not be able to accept patients if heavy rain inundates nearby streets, as they have no alternative means of access, according to a new government study.

Of the 676 facilities designated as disaster hospitals as of April last year, 398, or 58.9 percent, said the roads surrounding them could be flooded due to heavy rainfall or tsunami. Of these, 179 facilities, or 26.5 percent of the total, said they have no substitute access.

According to the study, which was released Monday, only 25 of the 179 have taken steps such as setting up heliports or using inflatable boats and amphibious vehicles to accommodate patients in such contingencies, while 154 facilities have yet to take any such measures.

Prefectural governments designate hospitals with disaster medical assistance teams, heliports and inhouse power generators as disaster hospitals to accept patients on a 24-hour basis when disasters occur.

The number of such hospitals was increased from 676 to 694 in April this year.

The results have prompted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to call on relevant prefectural governments to consider stepping in.

The ministry launched the study last October after heavy rain inundated a large part of Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, in August, leaving no designated disaster hospital in the city able to accept emergency patients for 10 hours.

A fire department official in Fukuchiyama said when more than 2,500 buildings flooded in heavy rain last August, the water level rose faster than expected.

Moreover, the water blocked a road leading to Fukuchiyama City Hospital, which serves as a special disaster facility. Four patients had to be delivered to the hospital on stretchers carried through waist-deep water for a distance of up to 200 meters, the fire department said.

The hospital also suffered from power outages caused by two lightning strikes. Despite switching to an in-house generator, some equipment remained unavailable for use for extended periods.

The flooding also affected staffing. Since workers on duty the following day were unable to reach the site, those already at the hospital had to continue at their posts while grabbing short naps.

As many as 101 hospitals, or almost 15 percent of the total surveyed, said they were unable to estimate the scale of damage resulting from ground liquefaction. Ninety-five blamed that on a lack of hazard maps drawn up by local communities.

Meanwhile, 93, or almost 14 percent of the total, said they could not foresee the efficacy of their fire extinguishing equipment, while 74 hospitals, or almost 11 percent, were unprepared to cope with damage caused by volcanic activity. As many as 62, or 9.2 percent, said they might have difficulty in dealing with damage due to seismic activity.

The study revealed that some hospitals have taken no specific steps even though they made some predictions of impact — and certainly did not consider a major disaster such as flooding or a lower-6 quake on the Japanese seismic scale.

The hospitals are required to conduct seismic strengthening work and must have access to drainage pumps, but some replied that they would need to raise funds for that. Some put it bluntly: They would be unable to cope without outside help.

The ministry guidelines designating hospitals as special disaster facilities do not specify location as a criteria, such as being in an elevated position if the neighborhood is flood-prone.

“It is essential to use hazard maps when estimating damage,” said Nobuo Fuke, head of Teikyo University Chiba Medical Center’s Intensive Care Center.

Meanwhile, recent disasters have boosted risk awareness among hospitals and local communities.

Authorities in Hyogo Prefecture revised guidelines in March 2014 that had been drafted in the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. And the Aichi Prefectural Government urged all medical institutions in the prefecture to establish a network enabling the exchange of information about bed availability.

Fukuchiyama City Hospital has issued a request to municipal and other authorities to increase the number of drainage pumps available for use in the event of flooding after heavy rainfall.

The hospital said it has also updated its electrical facilities so that they can power heavy equipment with in-house generators in the event of an emergency.

The biggest problem remains a shortage of funds.

“Local communities should share information about possible risks with hospitals and consider securing a budget for emergencies. But it is also important to establish a safety net among local hospitals,” said a health ministry official.