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Are There Any Harms Of Redefining Obesity?

The seventh item on the disease definition modification checklist developed by the Guidelines International Network (G-I-N) Preventing Overdiagnosis Working Group published in JAMA Internal Medicine,  deals with issue of potential harms to patients.

Given the obvious benefits of redefining obesity as the presence of abnormal or excess body fat that impairs health outlined in the previous post, it is nevertheless prudent to explore the possibility of unintentional harms.

Obviously, expanding the term obesity to include millions of people, who currently fall under the BMI threshold but may well have health impairments attributable to their body fat, may not sit well with these folks. In fact, they may find themselves shocked to learn that they would now be considered to have obesity (more a reflection of the stigma attached to this term, than its non-judgemental medical meaning).

Thus, the authors of checklist remind us that,

“The potential harms from diagnosis include the physical harms of diagnosis and treatment; psychological effects, such as anxiety; social effects, such as stigma and discrimination; and financial consequences, such as effects on employment….Potential harms also include the misapplication and misinterpretation of the disease definition when taken from a confined research application to more widespread clinical use.”

A, perhaps more concerning issue, is the impact that redefining obesity may have on limited resources for obesity management in the healthcare system.

“Changes in resource usage can result in harm by reducing access to care for some patients and by diversion and distraction of clinical care. This can happen at both the societal level, with resources taken from areas more important to health, and at the individual level, by distracting individuals from activities more important to their well-being. Modifications of disease definitions can have considerable impacts on costs, including the costs of testing, and the resources needed for treatment and follow-up for those diagnosed using the new criteria. There may also be resources needed for training and implementation regarding the change, and to minimise misdiagnosis. Costs are particularly important in low- and middle-income countries where inappropriate disease definitions can result in considerable diversion of limited health care resources.”

These concerns are far from trivial. Not only are current resources for managing obesity in our healthcare systems limited (to non-existant), but one of the main reasons that employers and payers balk at providing access to obesity treatments, is the sheer number of individuals that already qualify for such treatments. Significantly expanding the pool of eligible patients, is therefore. unlikely to be met with much enthusiasm from these stakeholders.

Not only would one need to demonstrate that providing obesity treatments to people currently below the BMI threshold can significantly reduce their risks, one would also need to demonstrate that such efforts turn out to be cost-effective in the long-term.

Given our limited treatments, there does not appear any practical way of providing these treatments to everyone who meets the current BMI definition of obesity, let alone the millions of additional people, who would be considered to have obesity, if the disease definition was expanded to include anyone whose health may be impaired by the presence of abnormal or excess body fat.

Thus, as much as redefining obesity may make biological sense based on our understanding of the complex pathophysiology and substantial health impacts of this chronic disease, the societal harms (particularly on resources) of such a move must be carefully considered.

Edmonton, AB

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