The second 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, pertains to the issue of how a proposed new definition would alter the prevalence of the disease.
As indicated in the name of the working group that came up with this checklist, their primary concern is over-diagnosis or “diagnosis-creep”, as often disease modifications tend to increase the number of people covered under said new diagnosis.
So what is the implication for prevalence of obesity if we move from a definition based on BMI to one based on an actual impairment of health?
Fortunately, we have some data on this, including our own studies on the Edmonton Obesity Staging System, which ranks individuals based on the presence of obesity related impairments in mental, physical, and/or functional health.
Based on varying estimates, anywhere between 5-15% of individuals with a BMI over 30 would be considered to be rather healthy with no or minimal health risks. These people would need to be excluded, if obesity was defined as the presence of abnormal or excess body fat that impairs health (they may at best be considered to have “pre-obesity”). This would slightly reduce the number of people considered to have obesity (especially in the BMI 30-35 range).
On the other hand, an estimated 40-50% of individuals in the BMI 25-30 range, would actually have significant health problems at least in part attributable to their excess weight, and these individuals may potentially benefit from obesity treatments. Thus, such a change in definition would very substantially increase the number of individuals considered to have obesity.
This, of course is something that needs to be carefully considered, as it would clearly have implications for obesity treatment in a significant number of individuals, who at this time would not meet the criteria for obesity management.
Let us, however, remember that one would still need to demonstrate significant benefit of treatment in these newly classified individuals. before expanding the indication of existing obesity treatments to these individuals.
Following in the footsteps of other organisations like the American and Canadian Medical Associations, the Obesity Society, the Obesity Medical Association, and the Canadian Obesity Network, this month, the World Obesity Federation put out an official position statement on recognising obesity as a chronic relapsing progressive disease.
The position statement, published in Obesity Reviews, outlines the rationale for recognising obesity as a chronic disease and is very much in line with the thinking of the other organisations that have long supported this notion.
In an accompanying commentary, Tim Lobstein, the Director of Policy at the World Obesity Federation notes, that recognising obesity as a disease can have the following important benefits for people living with this disease:
1) A medical diagnosis can act to help people to cope with their weight concerns by reducing their internalized stigma or the belief that their problems are self-inflicted and shameful.
2) A classification of obesity as a disease, or disease process, may help to change both the public and professional discourse about blame for the condition, the latter hopefully encouraging greater empathy with patients and raising the patient’s expectations of unbiased care.
3) Recognition of obesity as a disease may have benefits in countries where health service costs are funded from insurance schemes that limit payments for non-disease conditions or risk factors.
While all of this is great, and I am truly delighted to see the World Obesity Federation come around to this statement, I do feel that the policy statement seems rather tightly locked into the notion that obesity (or at least most of it) is a disease “caused” primarily by eating too much, with the blame placed squarely on the “toxic obesogenic environment”.
Personally, I would rather see obesity as a far more etiologically heterogenous condition, where a wide range of mental, biological and societal factors (e.g. genetics, epigenetics, stress, trauma, lack of sleep, chronic pain, medications, to name a few) can promote weight gain in a given individual.
Although these factors may well operate through an overall increase in caloric consumption (or rather, a net increase in energy balance), they, and not the act of overeating per se must be seen as the underlying “root causes” of obesity.
Thus, I tend to see “overeating” (even if promoted by an obesogenic food environment) as a symptom of the underlying drivers rather than the “root cause”.
Thus, saying that obesity is primarily caused by “overeating” is perhaps similar to saying that depression is primarily caused by “unhappiness”. Readers would probably agree that such a statement regarding the etiology of depression would make little sense, as “unhappiness” is perhaps a symptom but hardly the “cause” of depression, which can be promoted by a wide range of biological, environmental and societal factors, all resulting in the underlying biology that results in the mood disorder.
Similarly, I would say that there are indeed a number of complex socio-psycho-biological factors that underly the biology that ultimately results in overeating and excess weight gain (the food environment clearly being one of these factors).
While this may seem like semantics, I do think that a more differentiated look at the underlying etiology of obesity at the individual level (rather than simply blaming it all on “overeating”), is essential for promoting a more sophisticated view of this complex chronic disease both at the level of the individual and the population.
Based on the failing access to obesity care for the overwhelming majority of the 6,000,000 Canadians living with obesity in our publicly funded healthcare systems, the 2017 Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatment For Adults, released the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, has the following 7 recommendations for Canadian policy makers:
- Provincial and territorial governments, employers and the health insurance industry should officially adopt the position of the Canadian Medical Association that obesity is a chronic disease and orient their approach/resources accordingly.
- Provincial and territorial governments should recognize that weight bias and stigma are barriers to helping people with obesity and enshrine rights in provincial/territorial human rights codes, workplace regulations, healthcare systems and education.
- Employers should recognize and treat obesity as a chronic disease and provide coverage for evidence-based obesity programs and products for their employees through health benefit plans.
- Provincial and territorial governments should increase training for health professionals on obesity management.
- Provincial and territorial governments and health authorities should increase the availability of interdisciplinary teams and increase their capacity to provide evidence- based obesity management.
- Provincial and territorial governments should include anti-obesity medications, weight-management programs with meal replacement and other evidence-based products and programs in their provincial drug benefit plans.
- Existing Canadian Clinical practice Guidelines for the management and treatment of obesity in adults should be updated to reflect advances in obesity management and treatment in order to support the development of programs and policies of federal, provincial and territorial governments, employers and the health insurance industry.
If and when any of the stakeholders adopt these recommendations is anyone’s guess. However, I am certain that since the release of the Report Cards, the relevant governments and other stakeholders are probably taking a closer look at what obesity management resources are currently being provided within their jurisdictions.
Given that things can’t really get any worse, there is hope that eventually Canadians living with obesity will have the same access to healthcare for their chronic disease as Canadians living with any other illness.
Bariatric surgery is now widely considered by far the best effective long-term treatment for severe obesity – the long-term benefits on morbidity and mortality are well-documented (not to say that there cannot be problems in individual patients, but overall, the average outcomes are pretty remarkable).
That said, bariatric surgery is still not as widely available in Canada as surgical treatments for other health issues.
Nevertheless, over the past decade, yearly bariatric surgery rates in the Canadian public healthcare system have increased from around 3,000 a year in 2009 to over 8,500 in 2016.
However, as pointed out in the 2017 Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatment For Adults, released last week at the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, despite this increase, only about 1 in 200 Canadians with Obesity Class II or III would have access to surgery per year (at this rate it would take 200 years to do everyone eligible today).
What is also the remarkable is the variation in access to surgery from one province to the next. For e.g. while 1 in 90 eligible patients have access in Quebec, the corresponding number for Canadians living in Nova Scotia is 1 in 1,300, an almost 15-fold difference in access!
I can think of no other disease or treatments that would have a 15-fold difference in access between provinces.
Not quite as dramatic are the differences between Alberta (1 in 300) and its direct neighbour Saskatchewan (1 in 800). Even Newfoundland and Labrador does better with (1 in 390).
With these low rates, every province (except Quebec) gets an “F” for access and waiting times that range from 18 months (Alberta) to 60 months (Nova Scotia).
So, yes, while access to bariatric surgery has certainly improved in Canada in the last decade, getting it remains a rather long haul – a significant number of years of life lost, if you’re facing serious health problems from your obesity.
Every single guideline on obesity management emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary obesity management by a team that not only consists of a physician and a dietitian but also includes psychologists, exercise specialists, social workers, and other health professionals as deemed necessary.
As is evident from the evident from the 2017 Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatment For Adults, released last week at the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, the overwhelming majority of Canadians living with obesity have no access to anything that even comes close.
Thus, the report finds that
Among the health services provided at the primary care level for obesity management, dietitian services are most commonly available.
Access to exercise professionals, such as exercise physiologists and kinesiologists, at the primary care level is limited throughout Canada.
Access to mental health support and cognitive behavioural therapy for obesity management at the primary care level is also limited throughout Canada. bariatric surgery programs often have a psychologist or a social worker that offers mental health support and cognitive behavioural therapy to patients on the bariatric surgery route, but the availability of these supports outside of these programs is scarce.
Centres where bariatric surgery is conducted also have inter- disciplinary teams that work within the bariatric surgical programs and provide support for patients on the surgical route.
Alberta and ontario have provincial programs with dedicated bariatric specialty clinics that offer physician-supervised medical programs with interdisciplinary teams for obesity management.
Interdisciplinary teams for obesity management outside of the bariatric surgical programs are available in one out of five regional health authorities (RHa) in british Columbia, one out of 18 RHas in Québec, one out of two RHas in new brunswick and one out of four RHas in newfoundland and labrador.
Among the territories, only yukon has a program with an interdisciplinary team focusing on obesity management in adults.
I hardly need to remind readers, that this is in stark contrast to the resources and teams available to patients with diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, or any other common chronic disease, that are regularly available in virtually every health jurisdiction across the country (not to say that they are perfect or sufficient – but at least there is some level of service available).
I understand that our current obesity treatments are extremely limited (at least when effectiveness is measured in terms of weight loss). But even if access to these resources could simply help stabilise and prevent further weight gain (progression) and perhaps improve overall health and well-being, surely Canadians living with obesity should deserve no less that people living with any other chronic disease.
There is simply no excuse for treating Canadians living with obesity as second-class citizens in our publicly funded healthcare system.