February 29, 2024

Chinese neurosurgeons cash in on mental illness

Chinese neurosurgeons are treating mental illness with brain surgery, a practice which has practically disappeared in the West. According to the Wall Street Journal, doctors do thousands of the procedures to make money for themselves or for their hospitals. Furthermore, because of the lack of mental health facilities, it can be the only treatment available. The WSJ chronicles the stories of Chinese families who spent their life savings on operations promoted with glossy brochures and glowing promises — from which their children emerged crippled and worse off psychologically.

Since 2004, Wang Yifang, of the No. 454 People’s Liberation Army Hospital in Nanjing, has drilled into the skulls of nearly 1,000 patients and burnt small areas of brain tissue. “It’s completely off the charts. If he had done 10, it would be highly controversial,” says Michael Schulder, president of the American Society for Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery.

Chinese doctors make as much as nine tenths of their income through bonuses tied to business they generate, according to Henk Bekedam, who until recently was the World Health Organisation’s chief representative in China. This gives them a huge incentive to promote even risky neurosurgery.

Dr Wang says that the procedure is needed. “There are so many mental-disease patients,” he says. “In many of the mental-disease hospitals, 30% to 50% of the patients cannot be treated by medicine. And these patients have caused a great burden to their families and society.”

According to families interviewed by the WSJ, elementary precautions appear to be ignored. Pre-surgical tests are minimal; post-surgical follow-up is almost non-existent. Informed consent is dubious.