The New York State Department of Health is scrutinizing Bellevue Hospital’s use of unlicensed technicians to assist doctors in weight-loss surgeries.
Bellevue, a large public hospital in Manhattan, churns thousands of low-income patients through bariatric surgery every year, The New York Times reported this month. Doctors are paid in part based on the volume of surgeries.
In their push for speed, bariatric surgeons have at times asked equipment technicians to scrub in and participate in surgeries because the surgeons were short on assistants, two Bellevue doctors told The Times. Those technicians, who worked for an outside vendor called Surgical Solutions, were not licensed to treat patients.
The state health agency has begun an inquiry into the allegations, which could lead to a formal investigation.
“The department is looking into the matter,” an agency spokeswoman, Danielle De Souza, said Wednesday.
Christopher Miller, a spokesman for Bellevue, said the inquiry was preliminary and might not result in an actual investigation. “We are reviewing your allegations and will pursue action as appropriate if the facts warrant it,” he added.
Surgical Solutions did not respond to requests for comment.
The use of unlicensed technicians was one of many red flags that Bellevue employees described to The Times about the bariatric program. Two surgeons raced to see how many operations they could preform in a day. And anesthesiologists reduced doses of pain medication so that patients woke up sooner and operating rooms were cleared faster.
Bellevue even recruited patients from New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex who had virtually no chance of maintaining the required diets after surgery. Two said they became malnourished as a result.
After the Times article was published, executives for Health and Hospitals Corporation, the New York City agency that oversees Bellevue, emailed employees and told them that “the article left out important context.” They praised the bariatric surgery department for offering “comprehensive care and affordable, high quality surgical services” to low-income New Yorkers.