WASHINGTON – The American Medical Association voted Tuesday to declare obesity a disease, a move that effectively defines 78 million American adults and 12 million children as having a medical condition requiring treatment.
The nation’s leading physicians organization took the vote after debating whether the action would do more to help affected patients get useful treatment or would further stigmatize a condition with many causes and few easy fixes.
In the end, members of the AMA’s House of Delegates rejected cautionary advice from their own experts and extended the new status to a condition that affects almost 36 percent of adults and 12 percent of children in the United States.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, an AMA board member.
Tuesday’s vote is certain to step up pressure on health insurance companies to reimburse physicians for the time-consuming task of discussing obesity’s health risks with patients whose body mass index exceeds 30. It should also encourage doctors to direct these patients to weight-loss programs and to monitor their often-fitful progress.
The federally funded Medicare program, which insures an estimated 13 million obese Americans who are over 65 or disabled, already covers the costs of “intensive behavioral therapy” for obese patients, as well as bariatric surgery for those with additional health conditions. But coverage for such obesity treatments has been uneven among private insurers.
The AMA’s decision effectively makes diagnosis and treatment of obesity a physician’s professional obligation. As such, it should encourage primary care physicians to get over their discomfort about raising weight concerns with obese patients.
Past AMA documents have referred to obesity as an “urgent chronic condition,” a “major health concern” and a “complex disorder.” The vote now lifts obesity above the status of a health condition, disorder or marker for heightened risk of disease – as high cholesterol is for heart disease, for instance.
“As things stand now, primary care physicians tend to look at obesity as a behavior problem,” said Dr. Rexford Ahima of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. “This will force primary care physicians to address it, even if we don’t have a cure for it.”
The new designation follows a steep 30-year run-up in Americans’ weight – and growing public concern over the resulting tidal wave of expensive health problems. Treatment of such obesity-related diseases as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers drives up the nation’s medical bill by more than $150 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.