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Obesity as a disease: What does it mean for Americans?

 

Now that obesity has been officially classified as a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA), many are wondering how this will affect the 35.7 percent of Americans who are described as obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Will this decision help facilitate better treatments for people who are currently obese? And will this new classification help combat the country’s growing obesity epidemic? Dr. Leena Khaitan, director of the bariatric surgery program at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, hopes the answers to those questions will be, ‘Yes.’

“Right now, physicians will treat high blood pressure, diabetes, give patients medications and say, ‘Oh you also need to lose weight,’” Khaitan told FoxNews.com. “I think (this) gives the physicians a little more credibility in pushing patients to address obesity and become healthier. It’s recognized as a disease…not just something that (because) you have poor lifestyle habits, this is your problem.”

The AMA, which voted for the change on Tuesday, concurs, saying they hope their decision will prompt greater communication between doctors and patients.

“The most important point we want to make is it will be important for physicians and patients to work together to develop weight goals and other goals as well,” Dr. Patrice Harris, an AMA board member, told FoxNews.com. “The point is to raise the level of awareness about obesity and have patients and physicians talk together to decide on weight goals, blood pressure goals, cholesterol goals (and) blood glucose goals.”

Obesity is associated with a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and an increased risk for cancer. Though numerous treatments exist to treat problems associated with obesity – like high blood pressure and cholesterol – remedies for obesity are limited.

According to Khaitan, bariatric surgery is often the best option for obese people who haven’t been able to lose weight through traditional diet and exercise programs. However, weight loss surgery is often seen as an elective procedure by insurance companies, meaning patients usually have to pass through many hurdles before they undergo the procedure.

“Up until now, without that classification, the path to obesity surgery (has been) very challenging,” Khaitan said. “Oftentimes people have to pay extra to have that type of insurance policy, (and) many employers choose not to cover it because it’s consider an elective operation. Now, we’re saying obesity surgery is no longer elective, it is truly something that will treat (this) disease and is potentially lifesaving.”

Additionally, Khaitan hopes that the changes will also make it easier for obese patients – or those at risk for obesity – to receive nutritional counseling.

“If I send a patient to a dietician, that isn’t covered by insurance,” Khaitan said. “But hopefully by changing this classification, this would become a covered treatment for people, and they’ll be more likely to actually do it.”  

Though there are many upsides to obesity’s new classification, Khaitan hopes that patients will not use the ‘disease’ classification as a crutch.

“I don’t want patients to say, ‘Oh I have this disease,’ and not take accountability for it to make changes they need to make to fight this disease,” Khaitan said.

When asked whether or not they had considered whether obesity could now also be categorized as a disability, Harris said, “We did not have the issue of disability in this particular policy, and that’s not the focus of this policy.”  

Additionally, the AMA expressed the hope that their decision will spur more research into potential prevention and treatments methods – as well as decrease overall health care costs for both patients and insurers.

“The direct cost of obesity is over $535 billion a year, and we could reduce that with improved health outcomes,” Harris said. “Patients could lead healthier lives and reduce health care spending.”