China's health and military authorities have jointly started an investigation into a military hospital that allegedly subcontracted its cancer clinic to private owners in the wake of the death of a young man who was allegedly conned into receiving substandard treatment.
The qualifications of private medical facilities and their shady relationship with military hospitals are to be scrutinized as the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) and the Central Military Commission announced Tuesday they would investigate the scandal that is believed to be the tip of the iceberg.
"China's private hospital sector has been in disorder for years due to loopholes in medical policies and weak supervision," Zeng Guang, a medical expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Global Times on Monday.
The synovial sarcoma patient, Wei Zexi, died on April 12 after receiving immunotherapy from a private biomedical center at the Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps, which allegedly lied to Wei's parents that its immunotherapy would guarantee an 80 to 90 percent survival rate and was the "most advanced technology in cooperation with Stanford University."
The Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps refused to comment on the case. The biomedical center has been shut down and Stanford has denied any connection to it.
Putian's medical moguls
The biomedical center which provided Wei's immunotherapy is run by entrepreneurs from Putian County in East China's Fujian Province, news portal ifeng.com reported on Monday.
Farmers-turned entrepreneurs from Putian were the first to open private clinics in China. Chen Deliang, who created the business model of the Putianese-owned hospitals, started his medical career in early 1980s, using his limited medical knowledge to cure minor illness such as scabies and gain fame across the country, according to Shanghai-based magazine Oriental Outlook.
As Chen become famous, he started to take on apprentices and treat all kinds of ailments. Putianese entrepreneurs gradually came to control the majority of China's private hospitals in the next few decades.
According to Jiankangbao, a newspaper affiliated with the NHFPC, more than 60,000 residents in Putian were engaged in the medical and healthcare industry in 2014, while over 8,000 private hospitals among the country's total of 11,514 were run by Putianese.
Though Putianese-owned hospitals have spread nationwide, their insufficient medical resources and poor services have irritated the public. In 2014, Yu Minhong, founder of New Oriental Education and Technology Group, called for a boycott of a Putianese-owned hospital in Yunnan Province via his Sina Weibo, criticizing its unprofessional treatment.
"The rise of Putianese-owned private hospitals is partly caused by the government's underinvestment in public hospitals," Zeng said.
World Health Organization statistics show that more than half of Chinese public hospitals' income relied on government funding before 1978, but by 1980, this number had plunged to 30 percent. In 2014, private healthcare institutions accounted for 47 percent of China's total, according to the NHFPC.
"The decline of public hospitals has led to the booming of some unqualified private medical facilities, which excessively exploit their patients and scam their money by conducting unnecessary medical procedures," Zeng said.
"The government should seize the chance to strike a blow against the disorder of these unfit private hospitals, and make it a main goal of the country's medical reform in the future," Zeng said, adding that private hospitals that follow the law and put patients as a priority should be encouraged, as they can fill the hole in China's medical resources which are currently lacking.
Military hospital loopholes
An announcement sent to the Global Times from the Beijing Health and Family Planning Commission on Tuesday states that local public hospitals are forbidden from putting their departments out to contract, but military hospitals are not subject to the commission's jurisdiction.
"Beijing Health and Family Planning Commission has no right to supervise military hospitals, as they are controlled by the military's health departments," the announcement read.
"Contracting out military departments to private hospitals has severely damaged the reputation of the army, and may lead to corruption," Zeng said.
"The medical scandal shows that loopholes still exist in the supervision system of military hospitals, which may offer some corrupt officials a chance to feather their nests," Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based expert, told the Global Times.
China's military will end all paid services in every sector within the next three years, and the armed forces must not sign any new contracts for paid services and allow existing contracts to expire, the Xinhua News Agency reported in March.
"One of the main tasks of China's military reform is to cut off business connections between society and the military. In order to keep their purity, military hospitals should only be run by the army," Song said.