The Yomiuri ShimbunThe government plans to use Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels as multipurpose ships to serve as hospitals in the event of a major disaster such as a Nankai Trough earthquake.
The plan, which could go into operation as early as fiscal 2020, would provide backup hospital functions offshore when medical facilities in a disaster area are damaged.
The government plans to use a total of seven ships — Izumo- and Hyuga-class destroyers and Osumi-class transport ships — as hospital ships in disasters. Large helicopters for transporting the injured can take off and land from these vessels.
It is expected that one or two vessels that are not occupied with other duties or being serviced would be sent to a disaster area.
In addition to onboard sick bays where surgeries can be performed, “temporary hospitals” could be created by putting medical equipment, beds and Ground Self-Defense Force field hospital systems on the deck.
The injured and other patients would receive emergency treatment mainly from disaster medical assistance teams (DMAT) made up of doctors, nurses and other staff.
The hospital ships would only serve as a “relay point” on the way to hospitals outside the disaster area and would not provide inpatient care, a senior Cabinet Office official said.
The ships would be bases for medical activities and connect disaster areas to the outside world via the air during times when transportation networks are cut off immediately after a disaster and patients cannot be moved via ground transportation.
The introduction of hospital ships was considered after the Great East Japan Earthquake, which damaged or destroyed 300 of the 380 hospitals in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, limiting the ability of many facilities to accept patients.
The United States, China and Russia have warships dedicated to serving as hospital ships. However, Japan decided against this due to the cost of building and maintaining new hospital ships.
Using passenger vessels such as car ferries was also considered, but was rejected due to the time it would take for requisitioning.
When a major disaster occurs, the Cabinet Office would dispatch hospital ships based on requests from prefectural governments.
At present, matters such as the chain of command between captains of the MSDF vessels serving as hospital ships and DMAT have not been settled.
The Cabinet Office plans to work out the details and then create an operations manual for hospital ships, an outline of which could be finished this month. The manual, refined through training on actual vessels, would be completed in fiscal 2019.
MSDF ships were dispatched after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the Kumamoto earthquakes of 2016, where they were used mostly to transport supplies and provide bathing facilities for disaster victims.