18 August 2019
As private operations like Guiyang Sixth People's Hospital don't get much subsidy, they have to largely fend for themselves in terms of finances.
As private operations like Guiyang Sixth People's Hospital don't get much subsidy, they have to largely fend for themselves in terms of finances.

Mental patients ‘poaching’ saga highlights China healthcare woes

A doctor at a public hospital in China has stirred a controversy as he nearly emptied the wards in his department and took the patients along with him to a private healthcare facility.

It’s somewhat like the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, only that this time it’s too real.

Guihang Guiyang Hospital in China’s southwestern Guizhou province said in a statement on Feb. 4 that Yang Shaolei, the head of its psychiatry department, illegally transferred 64 mental patients from the hospital to a privately-backed rival — Guiyang Sixth People’s Hospital.

Yang took the action without informing patients’ families or guardians and without carrying out proper discharging procedures, the hospital said, denouncing the move.

He didn’t tender his resignation either before making the move.

The only patient Yang left behind was a 103-year-old Alzheimer’s sufferer who was also diagnosed with a lung infection.

Guiyang Sixth People’s Hospital, on its part, claimed that all the patients came to its facility “of their own free will”.

The claim is strange, given that the patients — who have all been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses — can be hardly expected to understand what is happening to them.

Guiyang Sixth People’s Hospital used to be a public hospital, just like Guihang Guiyang, earlier, albeit of a lower grade.

A couple of months ago, Longmaster Information & Technology Co. (300288.CN) spent 800 million yuan to acquire 66 percent stake in the hospital, turning it into a private facility.

The investment came as Chinese authorities, in a bid to improve healthcare services and to alleviate the pressure on public hospitals, have been calling for more private sector participation in hospital operations.

As they don’t get much subsidy, private hospitals have to largely fend for themselves in terms of finances. But the institutions are given much more autonomy in the patient admittance policy, choice of drugs, the setting of fees and remuneration packages of doctors.

Having turned private, Guiyang Sixth People’s Hospital was able to poach high-caliber doctors from other hospitals by offering them better salaries. The doctors can help upgrade the hospital services as well as get more “clients”.

Popular and experienced doctors accumulate a number of patients during their work over the years. Now, when the doctors switch to a new hospital, patients would often want to follow their doctors to their new places of work.

Such moves shouldn’t surprise observers, but here we are talking about a situation where the patients are not of sound mental health. As the patients can’t decide for themselves, transferring them to a new hospital without obtaining the consent of their families is outrageous.

It’s reported that both local and central governments provide various subsidies for patients with severe mental illnesses, with the assistance amounting to much as 3,000 yuan a month per patient. Given these subsidies, such patients can be a stable stream of income for private hospitals.

Yang Shaolei admitted to local media that his patients would generate at least 3 million yuan of gross profit per year for the hospital.

The doctor, however, claimed that he did it for the patients’ sake, because Guiyang Sixth People’s Hospital has invested in better facilities.

Meanwhile, Longmaster Information & Technology has rushed to clarify that it has not been directly involved in operation of Guiyang Sixth People’s Hospital.

As for Guihang Guiyang Hospital, it has lodged a police complaint.

Private hospitals now account for 53 percent of all hospitals in China, but only 12 percent of all patient visits. The government intends to lift the ratio above 30 percent.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 8

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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