Obesity as a disease: The challenge for physicians

Following the lead of the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association declared obesity a “disease.”  The AMA cited the plethora of evidence linking obesity to chronic disease including the number one cause of mortality in the US, cardiovascular disease.  They describe the move as an effort to urge physicians and third party payers to recognize the need for obesity treatment ranging from behavioral counseling to surgery.

While the definition of “disease” continues to be debated, the AMA’s call to action is much needed given that access to non-surgical preventive care is virtually non-existent.  Rates of physician counseling for obesity have declined as rates of obesity have risen, meaning physicians are doing less not more over time to combat the risks that obesity imparts on patients. Also concerning is that behavioral counseling for obesity shown in large randomized trials to significantly reduce risk of type 2 diabetes are not a reimbursable healthcare service.

How might labeling obesity a “disease” change the way we treat patients? Physicians may be more inclined to put obesity on their radar, counsel patients, and refer them to effective programs, but this can only happen with concomitant changes in reimbursement policy.  The challenge for physicians has been twofold 1) they lack the time and skills to effectively treat obesity in the context of a primary care visit and 2) there are no reimbursable services to which to refer patients. The move by the AMA may push the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), the organization that sets the tone for healthcare reimbursement, may be pressed to move towards better coverage for obesity treatment. CMS reimbursement policy is currently extremely narrow.

In December 2011, CMS decided to cover primary care physicians to provide behavioral counseling for obesity, but again, physicians lack the skills and time to deliver this care. Effective behavioral counseling involves 6-12 months of dietary counseling, exercise, and behavioral modification, skills that are in the wheelhouses of dietitians, exercise physiologists, and behavioral health professionals who were conspicuously left out of the CMS policy. To be reimbursed for counseling, these professionals can only see patients who have a “disease” (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, eating disorder, depression). As reimbursement policy stands, a serious condition must develop before obese patients can be treated by the professionals who are trained to treat them. Preventive care, by definition, should be available prior to the development of a condition, not after. These professionals also bill at much lower rates than physicians, and in a time of spiraling healthcare costs, preventive services that leverage the entire healthcare team are needed.

A negative side effect of the AMA decision is that the word “disease” is often misinterpreted as meaning that a person has no control over the condition.  On the other hand, critics say that obesity should not be called a “disease” because it is a result of lifestyle choices which people should be able to easilycontrol. Both of these suppositions reflect a poor understanding of human behavior.  Behavior is not out of our control, but it is not always easy to control either. Our genetics and environment heavily influence our behavior. For example, a host of genetically-driven neurobiological variations influence appetite and even our experience of a food as palatable. This means that some people have intense appetites, some less so. Some people have an intense affinity for sweets and fats, others less so. Humans vary in these factors just as they vary in every other physical characteristic.

In terms of environment, the increasing availability of super-palatable foods over the last 3-4 decades strongly impacts how much we eat, which is likely why rates of obesity are climbing since our genes haven’t changed in this timeframe. The food environment is more challenging to contend with for some than others, depending on the hand one is dealt in terms of those neurobiological variations in appetite. Further complicating matters are a host of psychological and physical factors that influence appetite including sleep deprivation, stress, and depression. The assumption that any lifestyle choice should be just as easy for one person as it is for another (i.e., “If I can maintain my weight, everyone should be able to!”) is egocentric because it assumes our brains and environments are identical which is not true for any two people on the planet.

To offset the fallout from misconceptions about what obesity as “disease” really means, providers should counsel patients with a richer explanation of behavior, empathize with them on how hard it is to combat environmental forces, while empowering them with effective strategies. Counseling should help patients reconstruct their environments to reduce the presence of palatable foods so that ultimately healthier choices become easier to make. This differs from the traditional advice of “eat less and move more” which ignores the very processes that make this advice so difficult to follow.

In the end, the AMA’s decision was a necessary call to action given the need for preventive care. The debate over what the word “disease” means will likely continue, however the real task at hand is to prevent obesity from leading to chronic life-threatening conditions and reduce the spiraling healthcare costs fueled by a food environment that increasingly threatens our collective health.

Sherry Pagoto is an associate professor of medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School. She blogs at Shrink and can be reached on Twitter @DrSherryPagoto.

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  • Chiked

    “For example, a host of genetically-driven neurobiological variations
    influence appetite and even our experience of a food as palatable”

    Yes, and I am sure the same variations affect our math and verbal abilities. Yet I do not see anyone fighting to help those who cannot get into Harvard because they could not ace their SATs.

    Everyone is dealt a hand when they are born. You make the best out of it. Stop blaming genetics for why you are fat and deal with the fact that we now have super addictive foods in an increasingly stressful world. Doctors, focus on the environmental factors affecting our eating behavior and stop looking for new diseases.

  • bill10526

    Mirv Griffin had a day time talk show that often featured the newest diet book. He was highly motivated to control his weight and tried every one of the diets covered on his show. None worked; he stayed heavy. The general rule is that weight loss through dieting comes back with interest.

    As i understand the subject, there is no evidence that people can control their weight through diet and exercise, with some exceptions for the occasional person who makes weight control the be all and end all of their lives.

  • querywoman

    Gays fear that labeling homosexuality as biological will lead to aborting allegedly gay fetuses.
    So when will the medical profession start advocating aborting fat fetuses? Usually one doesn’t need genetic testing – just look at the parents! Weight size is hereditary.
    There is already evidence of medical bias against fat fetuses anyway. Some ob/gyns won’t take fat pregnant women. Their risk is so high in gyn surgeries, etc.! Yeah, right! Why are they doing so many gyn surgeries anyway? Learn how to turn around babies in the womb with your hands before delivery, etc.! Why is it considered necessary to cut into a real fat tummy to get a baby out? Can’t you wait and let the mom deliver naturally?
    FYI, I criticize ob/gyns and interventionist labor heavily, but I have never been pregnant, unfortunately. I realize I am not the best qualified person to critique them!

  • Dorothygreen

    Why can’t the AMA led the way, like Dr. Koop did to reform our eating culture?Why can’t the AMA led the way, like Dr. Koop did to reform our eating culture?

  • Sara Stein MD

    Yes, absolutely it is a disease. Good blog, Sherry.

    @Dorothygreen:disqus If you would have read the actual AMA statement, you would have seen this:“there is now an overabundance of clinical evidence to identify obesity as a multi-metabolic and hormonal disease state including impaired functioning of appetite dysregulation, abnormal energy balanced, endocrine dysfunction including elevated leptin levels and insulin resistance, infertility, dysregulated adipokine signaling, abnormal endothelial function and blood pressure elevation, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, dyslipidemia, and systemic and adipose tissue inflammation”. For SOME obese people there is a component of addiction, but not all.

    It gets even worse scientifically. In a groundbreaking study published
    in PLOS ONE 6/26/2013, OVERWEIGHT may be a disease also. In a study of 200,000 people affected by a common genetic variant, even a ONE UNIT increase in BMI is associated with a 20 per cent increased risk of developing heart failure. Further, the study also confirms that obesity leads to higher insulin values, higher blood pressure, worse cholesterol values, increased inflammation markers, and increased risk of diabetes.

    Imagine that, fat causes disease all on its own. Even if you eat healthy and exercise.

  • GarySweeten

    Labeling everyone will predictably cause more people to become obese. Shaming people boomerangs. Read the Medical research on motivating people to be healthier.

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