Obesity advocates and many people in the medical community are celebrating the news that the American Medical Association (AMA) now recognizes obesity as a disease. In so doing, it changes how doctors and other healthcare professionals approach and treat people who are having problems with their weight.
For instance, The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery released a statement calling it a watershed moment that will help improve access to medically necessary and scientifically proven prevention and treatment strategies and remove the societal stigma attached to obesity.
While Medicare covers an estimated 13 million obese citizens and the associated treatments for obese patients, its not consistently so in the private insurance market. Some think the move by the AMA will place additional pressure on the insurance industry to cover more obesity related treatments.
According to the LA Times, research has shown that over half of obese patients have never been told that they need to lose weight by a medical professional. The reason, in part, is quite simple. Obesity is a touchy and emotional subject. Broaching the subject can hurt an already fragile ego. But now that obesity is recognized as a disease, the onus is on doctors to proactively treat it like they would any other disease.
“As things stand now, primary care physicians tend to look at obesity as a behavior problem,” said Dr. Rexford Ahima of University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. “This will force primary care physicians to address it, even if we don’t have a cure for it.”
The decision by the AMA has been met with some pushback in the medical community.
I believe obesity is a major public health crisis. It needs to be tackled, but the AMA calling it a disease doesn’t remotely move that ball forward, says Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.
His most compelling argument follows: For the 20 percent of obese people who are completely metabolically normal and dont cost the taxpayer anything, do they have a disease?
Any reasonable person can agree that obesity is a health crisis, one that needs to be addressed. If the motivation of identifying obesity as a disease is to make treatment more prevalent, there are other ways. Dr. Lustig thinks reimbursement will already come under Obamacare. Then there is the potential psychological repercussions of calling it a disease, either further stigmatizing the obese or deflecting responsibility for their condition.