Obesity declared a disease by AMA

Jun 19 2013 - 2:26pm
AMA votes to redefine obesity as a disease

Obesity has officially been declared a disease by the American Medical Association, which voted for the action on Tuesday.

Accordingly, 78 million American obese adults and 12 million obese children are now considered to have a medical disease that requires treatment.

Before taking a vote, the AMA debated whether making obesity a disease would help by getting more obese patients into effective medical treatment, or hurt by further stigmatizing a condition that is sometimes blamed on a lack of will power to stop eating.

Ultimately, the nation’s leading physician’s organization decided to give obesity new status, declaring it a disease that affects more than one-third of adults and 17 percent of children in the U.S.

"Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately 1 in 3 Americans," AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris said in a statement Tuesday. "The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity."

Blacks have the highest rates of obesity at 49.5 percent, followed by Mexican Americans at 40.4 percent, all Hispanics at 39 percent and whites at 34 percent.

Obesity among children and teens has almost tripled since 1980. Among children, there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity rates. Hispanic boys are significantly more likely to be obese than white boys – and black girls are significantly more likely to be obese than white girls, according to the CDC.

So what does Tuesday's vote mean for the healthcare industry in general?

For starters, it will put more pressure on health insurance companies to reimburse physicians for treating the obese, a laborious undertaking that involves discussing the health risks of obesity with patients whose body mass index exceeds 30.

For physicians, it means their diagnosis and treatment of obesity is now a professional obligation; thus, it should motivate primary care physicians to address obese patients about the hazards of their disease, no matter how uncomfortable such a discussion may be.

Indeed, studies show that more than half of obese patients have never been told by a medical professional that they need to lose weight. This suggests a reluctance by doctors to confront the issue for fear of offending the obese patients, not to mention a possible unwillingness to engage in a lengthy consultation that the physician may not be reimbursed for.

The Medicare program, which insures an estimated 13 million obese Americans who are over 65 or disabled, already covers the costs of "intensive behavioral therapy" for obese patients. The federally funded program also covers bariatric surgery for those with additional health conditions. However, coverage for these obesity treatments has been irregular among private insurers.

In the past, the AMA has referred to obesity as an "urgent chronic condition," a "major health concern" and a "complex disorder." The vote to define it as a disease now elevates the status of obesity to new levels above and beyond that of a mere health condition, concern or disorder that raises the risk for all kinds of other diseases.

Declaring obesity as a disease comes on the heels of a dramatic increase in obesity in America over the last 20 years, as well as a rise in public concern over the rising costs of treating health problems linked to obesity.

Indeed, treatment of obesity-associated problems like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers has increased the nation's medical bill by more than $150 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).



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