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.
Just imagine if the question in the title of this post was, “Why would anyone want access to prescription medications for diabetes?” (or heart disease? or lung disease? or arthritis? or, for that matter, cancer?)
Why would anyone even ask that question?
If there is one thing we know for sure about obesity, it is that it behaves just like every other chronic disease.
Once you have it (no matter how or why you got it) – it pretty much becomes a life-long problem. Our bodies are so efficient in defending our body fat, that no matter what diet or exercise program you go on, ultimately, the body wins out and puts the weight back on.
In those few instances where people claim to have “conquered” obesity, you can virtually bet on it, that they are still dealing with keeping the lost weight off every single day of their life – they are not cured, they are just treated! Their risk of putting the weight back on (recidivism) is virtually 100% – it’s usually just a matter of time.
Funnily enough, this is no different from people trying to control any other chronic disease with diet and exercise alone.
Take for e.g. diabetes. It is not that diet and exercise don’t work for diabetes, but the idea that most people can somehow control their diabetes with diet and exercise alone is simply not true. No matter what diet they go on or what exercise program they follow, sooner or later, their blood sugar levels go back up and the problems come back.
You could pretty much say the same for high blood pressure or cholesterol, or pretty much any other chronic health problem (that, in fact, is the very definition of “chronic”).
So why medications for obesity?
Because, like every other chronic disease, medications can help patients achieve long-term treatment goals (of course only as long as they stay on treatment).
Simply put, if the reason people virtually always regain their lost weight (no matter how hard they try to lose it) is simply because of their body’s ability to resist weight loss and promote weight regain, then medications that interfere with the body’s ability to resist weight loss and promote weight regain, will surely make it far more likely for them to not only lose the weight but also keep it off.
Now that we increasingly understand many of the body’s mechanisms to defend against weight loss and promote weight regain (and the body has a whole bag of tricks that you are up against), then pharmacologically blocking these mechanisms makes this a manageable (fair?) fight.
This is by no means easy. Interfering with human physiology always comes at a cost – which is why we need medications that are robustly tested for safety and efficacy (which is why we are here talking about prescription medications and not the nonsense you can buy over the counter in your local drug store or health supplement outlet).
There is of course no guarantee that any one medication will work for or be tolerated by everyone – again, no different from the medications for other chronic diseases (which is why we have so many of them for the same indication).
So who has access to prescription anti-obesity medications in Canada?
Short answer – almost no one.
Thus, in the 2017 Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatment For Adults, released last week at the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, the less than 20% of Canadians living with obesity (and that is a very generous estimate) have access to the two prescriptions medications approved by Health Canada for long-term treatment of obesity.
Thus, as far a coverage for obesity medications in Canada is concerned,
Neither anti-obesity medication (Xenical® or saxenda®) are listed as a benefit on any provincial/territorial formulary and, therefore, they are not covered under any provincial public drug benefit (or pharmacare) programs.
There may be special-access programs in some provinces that adjudicate coverage for non-formulary medications based on individual case review; however, coverage for anti-obesity medications through these programs are not guaranteed and are, in fact, rare.
Anti-obesity medications are not covered in any federal public drug benefit programs.
Again one must ask, what will it take for governments, employers, and payers to stop discriminating against Canadians living with obesity in our healthcare system?
Disclaimer: I have received honoraria for speaking and consulting for companies that make anti-obesity medications
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