Going to the hospital in China hasn’t been the same since the Wei Zixi Incident. Wei’s death triggered sweeping investigations into the networks of China’s hospitals, and the results have patients worried.
Wei, a student of Xi’an Electrical Engineering University, was diagnosed with the final stage of synovial sarcoma two years ago. Based on the results of a Baidu search, a CCTV 10 report and a doctor’s referral, Wei chose the Second Armed Police Corps Hospital in Beijing for his treatment.
A doctor surnamed Li received Wei’s parents on their first visit, according to a report by 163 News. Li told them that the hospital offered a “Biological Immunization Therapy” developed by Stanford University that boasted a success rate of about 80 to 90 percent. Li further assured Wei’s parents that the young man would be able to live another 20 years.
Wei died on April 12. Shortly before his death, Wei took to Weibo to write about his experience and his doctors.
News of his death shot around the Chinese web with the force of a bomb. Beijing Times reporters Wu Hongli and Ao Xiaobo said many of the hospital’s patients have since asked for refunds at the Biological Therapy Center.
One of them, a woman surnamed Liu, told reporters she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she had two years to live. Attracted by the hospital’s promises, she came to receive the same treatment as Wei Zexi.
By the time her family informed her about Wei’s death, her doctors had already absconded with her money.
Before Wei’s death, the Second Armed Police Corps Hospital was the first Baidu search result for cancer, given positive coverage from CCTV 10 and a 3A First Class ranking from the ministry.
Mogul of Private Hospitals
Beijing Times learned that the hospital’s Biological Therapy Center was cooperating with a company called Kelaixun. Its main managers were Chen Xinxi and Chen Xinxian, both part of the Putian Group.
Putian controls numerous private hospitals across the nation, though most appear to be publicly owned. Putian was one of Baidu’s largest clients, using prohibited advertising phrases such as “the best” and “guaranteed results.”
A former Baidu search engine developer told Beijing Times that top bidders were guaranteed top placement in Baidu’s search results.
“Baidu’s advertising profits amounted to 26 billion yuan this year, and 12 billion of that came from the Putian Medical Group,” Secretary of the Putian Municipal Committee Liang Jianyong said in 2013.
How could Putian Group afford to spend so much on advertising?
In a ChinaZ.com article titled “How Putian Group Came to Own More Than 80% of Private Hospitals Nationwide,” reporters found that none of the relatives of Putian Group leaders studied medicine. Most made their money off hospital management.
Putian is a small town in Fujian province that is known for its traveling doctors. Its three most influential families are headed by Zhan Guotuan, Lin Zhizhong and Chen Jinxiu. In the past 30 years, the three farmers developed a private hospital empire.
Founder Zhan Guotuan established the first 3A Putian Group hospital. He became a roving doctor at 15, following in his uncle’s footsteps and obtaining a medical work permit to treat skin disease in hostels. That permit only allowed him to work within Putian.
From 1979 to 1990, Zhan and his uncles travelled from hostel to hostel across the country, in violation of their permit. He learned basic prescriptions from borrowed books and attached his advertisements to lamp posts. His earnings, then several thousand yuan per year, were significant at the time.
In the 1990s, he expanded his advertising campaign to television and began renting office space in public hospitals and hiring retired doctors. The group initially focused on skin ailments, because they were rarely life threatening and generally did not require surgery.
Slowly but steadily, Zhan Guotuan moved into and bought out numerous hospitals. “At first, I would do anything just to make money. I became a millionaire in the 1990s, but now I want to make my hospitals legitimate,” Zhan said.
Back in Putian, other hustlers turned doctors were hungry for money. Legitimacy was not their priority.
The Putian Way
Reporters Zhu Guodong and Li Wei from Oriental Outlook Weekly investigated the operation systems of Putian Group hospitals.
“They tell you that you’re sick when you’re not, and they tell you it’s serious when it’s not. Putian Group advertises everywhere, tarring the reputations of all private hospitals,” said Sun Jie, director of Taizhou Boai Hospital.
Since Wang Hai reported on the Putian Group’s practices in 1998, their doctors stopped treating patients in hostels. But the hospitals they already owned made only minor adjustments to their operations.
“First, they rent a ‘hospital’ and fill it with cheap equipment and temporary staff. It keeps their costs down,” Sun said. “Then they begin advertising using fake information. They forge their doctors’ resumes. Most Putian Group hospitals focused on sexual transmitted diseases, skin diseases and fertility issues. If they succeeded, they stayed and expanded. If not, they closed the hospital, moved and tried again.”
Owing to their history as traveling doctors, Putian Group staff excelled at using scare tactics to make their patients pay more and stay longer.
When patients hesitated to pay for treatment, the doctors and nurses would say, “Last time, we had a patient who stopped the treatment after two days. I told him to finish the week and get it over with at once. He didn’t listen. A week later he was sick again and had to spend even more money.”
However, none knew whether he was sick or not. Any small symptom could be severe.
Buying Medical Licenses
It’s hard to imagine hose such roving doctors got licenses to practice, let alone the license to operate as a medical institution.
In fact, many medical licenses are widely available for purchase online. Reporters found that in Dongwan, medical licenses can be rented or bought. Prices range from 100,000 yuan in bigger cities to 60,000 yuan in smaller ones. Buyers often asked to be introduced to the local government officials.
Another tactic was renting office space inside public hospitals. Patients trust public hospitals, making it much easier to trick them. All the related municipal branch asked for was a 5 to 10 percent kickback. By using their connections to buy low-cost medical equipment, they could also print tax invoices showing their equipment was ten times more expensive.
Once everything was set up, the Putian doctors hit the street to advertise. Their biggest investment was always in public relations, hosting events to advertise circumcision and abortion on university campuses. Their slogans promised anything in order to attract patients.
The only thing missing was a cure.
Responding to Putian
According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission’s statement, the Commission pledged to crack down the Internet ticket scalpers and fake advertisers to restore hospitals’ credibility. A united group of different governmental branches has already started an investigation into the Beijing the Second Armed Police Corps Hospital.
But the Wei Zexi Incident was not the first time Putian Group has been in trouble.
Wang Hai revealed their secrets in 1988, and Oriental Outlook reporters gathered enough information to take them down. However, a decade later, Putian hospitals were still operating and making billions.
The TV talk show Lang Xianping on Economics once did an episode on Putian Group hospitals, but the show was pulled from broadcast on the night of its debut. The show was canceled shortly after.
“They paid many government officials,” Lang Xianping said. “It was the biggest corruption case since Macaw Yuan Hua.”
Not only were officials involved, but many publications also ran unmarked advertorials for Putian hospitals. The stories fawned over the prowess of their gynecology departments and recommended that all women go there.
A list of Putian hospitals recently emerged online, and Beijing Beihai Hospital was among them. Like most others, it held a 3A ranking and seemed to specialize in gynecology.
A search for the hospital on Baidu returned many results. However, a closer reading revealed all to be advertorials. The stories were posted and shared on PCbaby, Sina News and China Global Times. However, the links to where the articles originally appeared were all dead.
There are 24 Putian hospitals in Beijing in addition to Beihai Hospital.
In spite of how ferociously media has attacked the Putian doctors, hospital directors, officials and Baidu, it’s the editors of the very same media who accepted and ran Putian advertisements as original reporting.
After 30 years of operation and numerous reports of its illegitimate activity, the Putian Group is larger than ever.
Is Baidu really to be blamed for Wei Zixi’s death? Were reporters silenced from exposing Putian earlier? Or does the fault lay with lax government regulators who allow people to buy and sell medical licenses like handbags?
Putian Group’s complex web of bribes and likes makes it effectively impossible to resolve the question of how deeply it has penetrated the system.
The official guidelines for private hospitals appear neat and positive, but no laws exist to actually compel such hospitals to operate in accordance with the law.
Chen Xiaolan, a doctor in Shanghai who has fought fake medical equipment sales for nine years, said, “[Putian Group] is not something for the National Health Department to deal with. The Bureau of Public Security needs to step up and do its job.”