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Editorial: Carefully assess cost efficiency of hospital ship for disasters, remote care

  • June 6, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 1:43 p.m.
  • English Press

Ships equipped with hospital functions are useful for providing medical services in times of disaster and treating patients on remote islands. First, it is necessary to sort out the relevant issues that must be resolved in considering the introduction of such ships.


The government is considering acquiring a hospital ship equipped with medical facilities. It allocated research funds in the first supplementary budget for fiscal 2020, in response to suprapartisan requests from Diet members including those of the Liberal Democratic Party. It must precisely assess whether it’s worth the huge cost.


If a hospital is damaged by an earthquake, a hospital ship would be dispatched to the sea near the disaster-hit area to provide medical treatment. Although the ship may not be able to operate if a port area is damaged and the ship cannot dock at the pier, it can be put to use in normal times by being sent to southwestern islands where there are few medical facilities.


Establishing a flexible system to provide medical services is of no small significance. A hospital ship can also be used for disaster relief overseas.


What is crucial is to clarify the role of such a ship.


The LDP is calling for the introduction of a large 200-meter vessel with helicopters for transportation and hundreds of beds. Given the spread of infections with the novel coronavirus, the party also stresses that a hospital ship should be able to treat patients with infectious diseases.


To handle infectious diseases, it is essential for a hospital ship to have private rooms for isolating patients. A highly airtight treatment room, among other facilities, would also have to be set up within it. But if the ship is built to deal with a specific situation, would it not make it difficult to use the ship for a wide range of purposes, not just treating patients with infectious diseases?


This spring, U.S. Navy hospital ships were mainly in charge of treating patients with diseases other than COVID-19 to ease the burden on medical institutions. It is believed the decision was made by factoring in that the virus can easily spread on ships.


The introduction of a hospital ship was considered shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake, but the idea was shelved due to the financial burden.


It is estimated to cost several tens of billions of yen to build a hospital ship equipped with functions close to what is provided at a general hospital. Annual maintenance is also costly. It is desirable for the government to consider introducing not only a large and new ship, but also refurbishing a secondhand ferry, or introducing a number of medium-sized vessels to give priority to mobility.


Another important issue is whether enough personnel can be secured to operate the ship. In addition to medical staff, crew members in charge of navigating and checking the vessel are indispensable on a hospital ship.


The Chinese and Russian navies also own hospital ships. In Japan, the government presumes that such a ship would be possessed by the Maritime Self-Defense Force.


The Self-Defense Forces have 900 medical officers and 1,000 nursing officers who usually work at SDF hospitals and other institutions across the nation. It will be required to promote the development and training of human resources and to devise ways to dispatch medical and nursing officers to a hospital ship.


The MSDF is suffering from a serious shortage of personnel, and it will not be easy to newly allocate members to a hospital ship. Utilizing retired SDF members may also be an option.


— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 6, 2020.

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