About a quarter of 676 disaster base hospitals (See below) could struggle to accept patients when large-scale disasters strike, according to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey on the impact of disasters and measures needed to deal with them.
Among hospitals designated as core medical facilities for urgent treatment during disasters, 179 are at risk of becoming inaccessible if roads are flooded from tsunami or torrential rain.
More than 80 per cent of the 179 have yet to implement measures to cope with such situations, which would strain their ability to accept patients during crises.
The survey also found that some hospitals would not be able to treat inpatients if areas where they are located are hit by earthquakes, tsunami or other disasters.
The ministry has asked prefectural governments to reinforce systems to accept patients in each region at times of such disasters by designating more disaster base hospitals and taking other measures.
The centre of Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, was flooded by torrential rain that hit the Kinki region in August last year.
As a result, ambulances were unable to reach Fukuchiyama City Hospital, the city's disaster base hospital, for about 10 hours.
Regarding the incident as a serious problem, the ministry requested all disaster base hospitals nationwide to submit written answers to a survey about potential problems if worst-case disasters in each area's hazard map (See below) occur.
Questions included the likelihood of nearby roads becoming flooded, the impact each disaster would have on the treatment of patients and the handling of such situations.
Results indicate that roads in the vicinity of 398 hospitals, or nearly 60 per cent of the total, could be flooded, and 179, or 26 per cent of the total, replied that ambulances and patients would struggle to enter and exit their areas.
Twenty-five hospitals answered they took such measures as installing heliports, rubber rafts or amphibious vehicles. But 154, or 23 per cent of the total, said they have not taken any measures.
Regarding impacts from various disasters that would cripple their ability to treat inpatients, 21 hospitals replied their medical wards could be flooded by tsunami or tidal waves while 15 cited the risk of their buildings collapsing if an earthquake strikes.
Eight were worried about lava flow if a volcano erupts and four cited concerns about the inflow of earth and sand from sediment disasters.
Many of the hospitals replied that such situations would hinder not only inpatient treatment but also outpatient care.
To avoid the impact of tsunami, some hospitals have already taken such measures as relocating to higher ground, installing drainage pumps and reinforcing quake-resistance capabilities.
But many hospitals have not taken any measures because of financial restraints.
One of the hospitals said its local government had not prepared a reasonable local hazard map.
Another reported it could not discuss the issue with relevant authorities because of unclear disaster damage forecasts.
"If disaster base hospitals don't function properly when disasters strike, the lives of people are at risk," said Yuichi Koido, chief of the clinical studies department at the National Hospital Organisation Disaster Medical Center.
"If a disaster base hospital is located in a quake-prone area, it's better to designate another hospital in a more stable area instead," he said. "Administrative authorities should play leading roles so that entire regions will be able to cope with all kinds of disasters."
■ Disaster base hospital
Established by the central government in 1996, a year after the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Hospitals are designated by prefectural governments if they meet such criteria as emergency medical care facilities, in-house electric power generators, food and water storage and disaster medical assistance teams.
There were 676 disaster base hospitals as of April last year. Designated hospitals are eligible for government subsidies to partially finance earthquake-resistance work or construction of storage facilities.
■ Hazard map
Visualizes projected size and areas of such disasters as tsunami, earthquakes, sediment flow, volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena.
Based on geographical formations and other natural conditions. Mainly produced by local governments, which map out evacuation routes and sites for residents.