The first 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 differ from the existing definition.
As authors are well aware, the current definition that is widely used to define obesity is based on BMI, a simple anthropometric measure calculated from body height and weight – a great measure of size, not such a great measure of health.
In contrast, the proposed definition of obesity, where obesity is defined as the presence of abnormal or excess fat that impairs health, would require the actual assessment and demonstration of the presence of health impairments attributable to a given subject’s body fat.
Thus, while anyone can currently “diagnose” obesity simply by entering height and weight into a BMI calculator and looking up the value on a BMI chart, the new definition would in fact require a full clinical assessment of an individual’s health. Such an assessment would need to look at both mental and physical health as well as overall well-being for issues that may be directly caused (or aggravated by) the presence of abnormal of excess body fat.
This does in fact bring up the issue of how exactly you would define “abnormal” or “excess” body fat and, even more importantly, how you would establish a relationship between body fat and any health impairments in a given individual.
While these issues would clearly need to be worked out, the face value of this approach should be evident in that it focusses on the issue of actual health impairments rather than an arbitrary BMI cut-off, above which everyone would be considered as having obesity.
This of course raises a number of issues around definition precision and accuracy, which is another item on the checklist and will be discussed in a future post.
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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.
In my opening address to the delegates, however, I emphasised that acceptance of obesity as a chronic medical diagnosis requires modification of the definition of obesity to ensure that people diagnosed with this condition do in fact have significant health impairments that warrant them being considered ‘sick’.
This is where, the current commonly used ‘definition’ of obesity based on BMI breaks down, as it would ‘misdiagnose’ a significant proportion of Canadians with having a ‘disease’, when in fact they may be perfectly healthy. Moreover, the current BMI-based ‘definition’ of obesity would exclude an even larger group of individuals, who may stand to benefit from anti-obesity treatments as having a BMI that is too low.
Let us recall that BMI is really just a measure of size and not a direct measure of actual health.
As discussed in a recent editorial published in OBESITY, we have suggested that it would only take a minor (but important) modification of the current WHO definition of obesity to ensure that this label is only applied to people whose health is in fact affected by their body fat.
Thus, we have suggested that the current WHO definition,
“The presence of abnormal or excess body fat that may impair health.”
be modified to
“The presence of abnormal or excess body fat that impairs health.”
This simple change to the wording would have significant implications in that obesity would move from simply being a term used to describe a risk factor (“may impair health“) to being an actual disease (“impairs health“), with all of its consequences for policy, regulators, healthcare systems, research, and clinical practice.
Before anyone thinks that this would be far too cumbersome or impractical, let us remind ourselves that such diagnostic approaches are standard practice for a wide range of other diseases that require a clinical encounter, laboratory testing, and/or diagnostic imaging for their diagnosis. In fact, there are very few diseases that can be reliably diagnosed with just a single measure or test.
“…in clinical practice, assessing whether or not abnormal or excess weight is impairing someone’s health should not pose a major diagnostic dilemma. In the vast majority of patients, a few interview questions, a brief physical exam, and a short panel of routine lab tests should readily establish (or rule out) the diagnosis of obesity.”
“Of course, there will always be borderline cases in which the signs and symptoms are too vague or too subjective to be diagnostic — but that, again, is not unlike other diseases in which borderline cases may require a more intense work-up or simply a watch-and-wait approach.”
“Moreover, in some cases, it may be rather difficult to establish whether a given health impairment is indeed due to the presence of abnormal or excess body fat. In these cases, it may be prudent to use an ex juvantibus (from Latin, meaning “from that which helps”) approach to confirm or discard the diagnosis of obesity based on whether said signs or symptoms (and not just body weight) respond positively to weight loss treatments.”
Such a redefinition of obesity would likely also have implications for how we apply the Edmonton Obesity Staging System to describe the severity of this disease. Thus, there would no longer be an EOSS Stage 0, as (by definition), these individuals do not have any mental, medical, or functional impairments attributable (wholly or in part) to their body fat. Moreover, EOSS Stage 1, may need to be redefined as “pre-obesity”, thus reserving the term “obesity” only for individuals who have at least EOSS Stage 2 or greater.
As for redefining obesity, let us remind ourselves that,
“Throughout medical history, disease definitions have often been subjected to refinements and alterations, reflecting advances in our understanding of the disease process as well as in diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. A redefinition of obesity based on actual health status would help us refocus our attention on ensuring that obesity treatments reach those who stand to benefit most rather than anyone who happens to exceed a certain size.
As importantly, this redefinition of obesity would also allow individuals,whose health is clearly being impaired by the presence of abnormal body fat, to access obesity treatments regardless of their shape or size.”
Redefining obesity based on clinical assessments would not necessarily mean that we discard BMI entirely from obesity research – it will certainly remain a valid measure for population studies and perhaps even continue its existence as a screening test to identify people likely to have obesity. BMI however, would no longer be used to diagnose this medical disease.
Wow, what a week!
Just back from the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, there is no doubt that this summit will live long in the minds (and hearts) of the over 500 attendees from across Canada and beyond.
As anyone would have appreciated, the future of obesity research, prevention and practice is alive and kicking in Canada. The over 50 plenary review lectures as well as the over 200 original presentations spanning basic cellular and animal research to health policy and obesity management displayed the gamut and extent of cutting-edge obesity research in Canada.
But, the conference also saw the release of the 2017 Report Card on Access to Obesity Treatment for Adults, which paints a dire picture of treatment access for the over 6,000,000 Canadians living with this chronic disease. The Report Card highlights the virtually non-existant access to multidisciplinary obesity care, medically supervised diets, or prescription drugs for the vast majority of Canadians.
Moreover, the Report Card reveals the shocking inequalities in access to bariatric surgery between provinces. Merely crossing the border from Alberta to Saskatchewan and your chances of bariatric surgery drops from 1 in 300 to 1 in 800 per year (for eligible patients). Sadly, numbers in both provinces are a far cry from access in Quebec (1 in 90), the only province to not get an F in the access to bariatric surgery category.
The presence of patient champions representing the Canadian Obesity Network’s Public Engagement Committee, who bravely told their stories to a spell-bound audience (often moved to tears) at the beginning of each plenary session provided a wake up call to all involved that we are talking about the real lives of real people, who are as deserving of respectful and effective medical care for their chronic disease as Canadians living with any other chronic disease.
Indeed, the clear and virtually unanimous acceptance of obesity as a chronic medical disease at the Summit likely bodes well for Canadians, who can now perhaps hope for better access to obesity care in the foreseeable future.
Thanks again to the Canadian Obesity Network for hosting such a spectacular event (in spectacular settings).
More on some of the topics discussed at the Summit in coming posts.
For an overview of the Summit Program click here