Gastric bypass is not a short cut to treat obesity

Recently, a female patient saw me in the office for the first time to discuss her chronic digestive issues. Luckily for her, my recommendations did not include probing into her alimentary canal with the endoscopic serpents that we gastroenterologists rely upon.

As the visit concluded, she advised me that she intended to have a gastric bypass (GIB) procedure performed, and even used the medical term of bariatric surgery. I suppose that she mentioned it because the issue falls within my specialty, and she wanted my reaction to her plan, although she didn’t directly solicit my opinion. Nevertheless, she received it.

I am not surprised anymore when the critical medical issue emerges at the end of the office visit. Every physician has this experience regularly.

“So, Mrs. Fleets, I think that this new medicine will really help your constipation. My nurse will be happy to arrange your next appointment. Do you have any questions?”

“How come I now have trouble breathing when I walk up stairs?”

What struck me about my bypass seeker was that she didn’t appear to have the bulk that would justify weight loss surgery. Sure, she was overweight, but she was thinner than many patients are after undergoing a gastric bypass operation. She was in her thirties and was not suffering from any pulmonary, cardiac, endocrine or rheumatologic consequences of obesity. She simply wanted to be thinner.

I asked her what other treatments she had pursued, since clearly surgical treatment of obesity should be the last option. A patient’s typical response to this inquiry is a narrative describing a series of diets and medications that produced only modest and transient benefit. When no other means can peel the pounds off, and the health consequences of the heft are significant, then surgery is worthy of consideration. But, this is a very weighty decision and the scales should not be tipped too easily in favor of surgery.

This patient had never been on a serious diet or enrolled in a weight loss program. I suggested Weight Watchers, a legitimate, effective and affordable program that encourages the client to make lifestyle changes that are sustainable. Of course, we live in an era of short cuts and gimmicks where infomercials promise us potions that will transform us from Michelin Men into taut lifeguards in a matter of weeks. She responded that she doesn’t have the time for the meetings.

Doesn’t have the time? My patient had no clue how much commitment and discipline gastric bypass surgery demands. If she couldn’t accommodate a weekly meeting, then how would she ever accommodate to her new intestinal anatomy? She was exactly the wrong candidate for the operation.

I explained to her that gastric bypass is major surgery with all of the risks of any abdominal surgery. More importantly, I emphasized to her that even when the operation is successful, it changes your life every single day forever. The dining experience, one of society’s most important social and familial forums, would be irrevocably altered. Bypassed patients knowingly forego gastronomical pleasure to serve a greater good.

Moreover, a gastric bypass procedure can redirect the internal plumbing, but it cannot unravel the psychological aspects of the disease. If the latter is not properly treated or screened for, then patients can undergo a bypass and actually gain weight. There is no bypass that can restrain a patient from ingesting several milkshakes a day.

Removing an appendix or a gallbladder won’t change your life. GIB profoundly disrupts nature’s digestive system. Only very small meals can be ingested. There are a host of nutritional deficiencies that can arise, because there may not be sufficient intestine available to absorb necessary nutrients.

Do I favor the operation? Yes, but only for a proper candidate who has been carefully vetted by medical and psychiatric professionals. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will have the surgery this year. The medical threshold for determining eligibility for bariatric surgery is becoming steadily lower. I wonder if the acceptance criteria have become too lenient. Of course, the operation is being marketed hard across the country to keep operating rooms humming. Bariatric surgery is big business.

Will this patient get the operation? I hope not, because I don’t think she has the mettle for her post-operative life. If I were the consulting surgeon, I would certainly ‘bypass’ her and direct her back to some treatment options that really work and have no risk.

Once again, I know that GIB is the right choice for many patients who are suffering and have no other remedy available. But, we live in a ‘cut & paste’ society where we often opt for short cuts and secret passageways to success. GIB is no short cut; it’s a surgical incision that may create a deep wound that will not heal.

Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

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