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September 22, 2017

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Deadly fire highlights problems faced by an aging population

The deadly fire that killed 12 elderly people at a Tainan hospital this week has highlighted not just public safety issues but also the urgent need for all social institutions to make changes to accommodate our aging population.

The government-run hospital that was hit by the blaze is perhaps the epitome of Taiwan's demographic changes. All the victims killed in the tragedy were from the nursing home on the second floor, management of which the hospital outsourced to a private operator. Also worth noting is that the fire started in a storeroom that had been converted from an obstetrician ward.

Birth rates in Taiwan have been low, and many smaller hospitals apparently have decided that keeping an obstetrician department would not be realistic or profitable. In fact, the medical institution has been lamenting the falling number of medical students who want to become obstetricians.

And it makes sense for hospitals to transform their services to cater to the aging population. But the Tainan tragedy shows that much more needs to be done than just renaming a section as a nursing home.

We are not accusing the Tainan hospital of breaking the law or failing to make arrangements as required by law. But perhaps it is the law itself that is inadequate to deal with such demographic changes.

The fire erupted in the early hours when the hospital was apparently understaffed to handle such an emergency. Most, if not all, of the elderly patients needed help to escape and there was clearly not enough to go around.

The hospital is said to have just passed a routine safety check by the authorities. If that is the case — and if there were no irregularities involved in the check — it means its arrangements and management complied with the law.

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