Ironically, just a few days ago we were talking about lung cancer and discrimination against patients with lung cancer in the post, The Pearl Ribbon. Now a new article published in Physicians Money Digest, suggests that one of the latest trends is discrimination against the obese. As obese people can tell you – this discrimination has always existed in some form, and from all avenues in society including medicine.
However, this new trend consists of doctors avoiding accepting obese patients in their practice, mainly to avoid the increased workload related to obesity related complications. That’s right – as discussed in the article by Laura Mortokowitz, which I have re-posted below -some doctors are avoiding caring for obese patients because they do not want to provide care to patients with higher risks of certain complications – diabetes, heart disease, etc.
As someone who works in heart surgery, I can see this issue from both sides. As many of you know – I am sometimes disheartened by the sheer overwhelming volume of disease (due to diabetes) and the amount of suffering involved for my patients. I am particularly distressed at times when I see the amount of preventable suffering, and damage my patients experience from not controlling their blood pressure, checking their glucose or taking their medications. But my patients are already sick – that’s why the are seeing a heart surgeon. So, I often mourn these lost opportunities to prevent disease (heart attacks, strokes etc.), and I can see how primary care providers, and other providers may feel emotional fatigue and frustration at times.
But, other the other hand – not every obese person is a stroke or heart attack waiting to happen. Many of these people can be helped – by education, counseling or even bariatric surgery. If these people are aggressively followed and cared for, risk reduction can help prevent catastrophic complications – by managing medical conditions that may develop – with aggressive cholesterol control, blood pressure management, etc.
Lastly, medicine is not an exact science – while risks may be greatly increased in many obese people – it is not a guarantee.. Just as it’s a false assumption that all overweight people are sedentary (ie. ‘fat and lazy’), not all overweight people will develop any or all of the complications we’ve discussed before. But it is guaranteed that these obese patients will suffer, if this trend continues and more and more doctors shun them.
But my door is always open.
As they stand now, ACOs look at quality measures and they base reimbursements on complications. Doctors already know that a high complication rate will mean less money, and obese patients are considered high-risk patients by definition.
“Under the current bill, the Accountable Care Organizations are looking strictly at outcome measures, so unless that changes I don’t see the perception by physicians changing toward who they’re going to want to treat and who they’re not going to treat,” says Nusbaum, the Medical Director at The Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey.
This new practice is not something that would have occurred in the past for two reasons: one, physicians might be reluctant to treat an obese patient, but it was rare to turn them away completely; and two, it was very rare to treat a morbidly obese patient a couple of decades ago.
However, over the last 10 years, the percentage of the population that is overweight has increased dramatically. Today, close to 70% of the population is at least overweight, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more concerning, is the fact that pediatric obesity has tripled over the last 20 years.
“Is the health care system to take care of morbidly obese patients? I would argue that it’s not,” Nusbaum says. “Pretty clearly it’s not. The problem with the health care system is that it lacks infrastructure.”
Most machines and tables can only hold up to 350 pounds, and any patients that exceed that weight might not even be able to get treated at a hospital that doesn’t have the equipment to handle an obese patient. According to Nusbaum, it should be a requirement that hospitals are equipped to treat any morbidly obese patient.
“Nobody is even talking about it,” he says. “Everybody is afraid to even talk about this.”
And it doesn’t seem as if new health laws are encouraging to the treatment of obesity. Under the new health bill’s Essentials Benefit Package, bariatric surgery is not covered because morbid obesity is being considered a poor lifestyle choice. As a result, insurance companies “have become emboldened to say, ‘Well, we’re not going to cover it either,’” Nusbaum says.
In New Jersey, Blue Cross/Blue Shield has 14 insurance policies, and eight of them do not cover bariatric surgery at all.
“What you’re seeing happening is a change in attitude to bariatric surgery and in my opinion a discrimination against those people who have weight issues,” Nusbaum says.
However, there was a rather positive turn of events in Michigan, where bariatric surgery will be covered in 2012 after it was dropped for all of this year.
“They noticed that while they were making money in the short term — they were saving money — they were losing more money by not taking care of these patients,” Nusbaum says. “[The patients] were getting sicker. It was very short sighted.”