New York Hospital Performed Inappropriate Weight Loss Surgeries on Patients: Report

Hospital employees report that doctors race to see who can do the most bariatric weight loss surgeries, and are paid based on the number of procedures they can perform.

New York City’s Bellvue Hospital is on course to perform more than 3,000 highly profitable bariatric surgeries this year, but a recent New York Times investigative report warns that some patients may not have been qualified to receive the procedure, and many others are not made fully aware of the potential long-lasting health risks.

The report highlights serious concerns about the number of weight loss surgeries at New York’s Bellvue Hospital, after conducting interviews with 70 employees, patients, and executives from the hospital, as well as the New York correctional system. The journalists also reviewed internal hospital documents, court filings, and medical records.

According to the findings, bariatric procedures account for one out of every five surgeries at Bellvue Hospital. And because Medicare pays for most of the surgeries, the hospital is raking in a profit, and taxpayers are footing the bill.

Bariatric Weight Loss Surgery

Bariatric surgery shrinks a patient’s stomach using differing methods, including laparoscopic surgery, gastric band, and gastric bypass. But each type of surgery requires patients to drastically change how they eat.

Even successful surgeries can cause periods of malnourishment, increase the risk of preterm birth, cause acid reflux for long periods of time, and a lifetime of gastrointestinal complications.

Most hospitals require patients to lose weight on their own for 6 months to one year before undergoing surgery because side effects can be serious. In addition, many patients require follow-up revision surgery due to complications.

Prior research has highlighted the importance of proper patient screening and preparation before recommending weight loss surgery, including mental health evaluations. In addition to physical side effects, bariatric surgery may also increase a patient’s risk of suicide, according to other studies.

Bellvue Hospital Weight Loss Surgeries

The New York Times report indicates there are thousands of bariatric surgeries conducted each year at Bellvue Hospital, including surgeries on patients from the New York prison, Rikers Island.

Many of the surgeries are conducted on patients who are not eligible for bariatric surgery under standard medical guidelines, or who have not undergone the proper screening, the report claims, resulting in many patients being rushed through surgeries described as an assembly line.

The New York Times indicates that this process has led to inappropriate patients receiving the procedures, patients suffering complications because of the high volume of surgeries being conducted, or because they were not prepared for the permanent changes necessary for their diet.

Incidents where the surgeries went wrong include one conducted on a woman even after multiple pregnancy tests conducted by medical staff indicated she was pregnant. Two Rikers Island inmates were also pressured to undergo surgery and experienced malnourishment as a result, the report claims.

Reporters found that the hospital offers financial incentives to surgeons who perform more operations each day, often giving operating rooms to bariatric surgery patients instead of patients who suffered gunshots or severely broken bones.

Despite the recommended months of prescreening, psychiatric evaluations, and the usual requirement that patients practice the altered diet they will need to adhere to after surgery for months, Bellvue gives patients surgery dates after attending a single informational session and briefly speaking with a doctor, the report indicates. Mental health assessments last roughly 10 minutes, and most patients said they agreed to surgeries without fully understanding the risks.

This has resulted in patients not following pre-surgery protocols, like having a liquid diet for two weeks before surgery. Some patients reported telling their doctor they ate Chinese food the night before surgery and still were approved.

Weight Loss Surgery Mill

Bellvue receives roughly $11,000 for every bariatric surgery performed, and Medicaid pays large amounts for bariatric surgeries. The hospital doesn’t disclose how much it makes on bariatric surgeries, but the New York Times investigation estimated it earned at least $34 million from these surgeries in 2023 alone.

Since 2008, Bellvue has performed more than 17,000 weight-loss surgeries. In the first year of the pandemic, the hospital stopped elective surgeries for three months of the year but performed 1,200 bariatric surgeries, almost as many as the 1,400 patients hospitalized for COVID that year.

Most doctors in other departments at Bellvue are paid flat salaries, but bariatric surgeons are paid bonuses when they perform more surgeries and meet quotas.

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Employees report surgeons often race each other to operate on the most patients each day and allow unlicensed employees to participate in surgeries. In addition, they sometimes conduct surgeries on patients who are not severely obese and with a Body Mass Index of less than 30. As a result, the New York Times report suggests that some patients have contracted life-threatening infections, spent months in a coma, or died.

Anesthesiologists reduce doses of pain medication so patients will wake up sooner and operating rooms can be cleared more quickly, according to the rport. Doctors were also seen pinching and slapping patient’s abdomens to get them to wake up faster.

The hospital also reportedly pressured Riker’s Island prisoners into surgeries, according to the investigation. These patients cannot maintain the strict diet required after bariatric surgery due to inmate conditions and face malnourishment.

Hospital officials deny many of the claims in the report, saying that the hospital never operates on unqualified patients and does not rush screening or approval, instead saying that the hospital has made its surgical process more efficient, thus saving lives in large numbers.

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