On June 18, the American Medical Association officially announced recognition of obesity as a disease, with multiple aspects requiring a range of interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention. This could have major impacts on how health care systems treat overweight patients.
The AMA’s decision comes one day after the organization’s own Council on Science and Public Health advised against such a move.
According to the council’s statement, treating obesity as a disease “is likely to improve health outcomes for some individuals, but may worsen outcomes for others.”
The council report particularly highlights the complexity of diagnosis and the wide variety of health issues caused by obesity. The council paper does acknowledge a need for better diagnosis tools in the fight against obesity.
The AMA delegates decided contrary to their council’s conclusion by a 60 percent vote. The decision increases pressure on the public sector generally, and the health community, to acknowledge the seriousness of obesity as a cause of many medical problems.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” says Dr. Patrice Harris, an AMA board member.
The American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists disagree. Both associations agree that evidence shows obesity is a multimetabolic and hormonal in nature, not organic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all of the following are health consequences of obesity:
- Coronary heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon)
- Liver and gallbladder disease
- Sleep apnea and respiratory problems
- Gynecological problems (abnormal menses, infertility)
Many dimensions of obesity in relation to health care today are covered in “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation 2010” by current Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.
Most scientific and medical commentary following the AMA announcement has been supportive. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians have indicated support for the AMA’s policy shift. Dissenting views have been expressed primarily in the political arena.
Conservative political commentator Michael Tanner warns against the impact of this decision. He argues that this new policy will shift the responsibility for personal weight loss from the individual to society. According to Tanner, this will bring about greater costs to health care and an increased propensity for patients to opt for easier ways out of obesity such as surgery.
“A bipartisan group of congressmen has already seized on the AMA declaration as they push for Medicare coverage of diet drugs,” Tanner points out in his column in National Review.
Numerous media figures, however, have weighed in sympathetically concerning obesity as a medical issue. Jeannie Stokowski-Bisanti argues on examiner.com that increased attention resulting from the AMA announcement could help to bring about a healthier America. Stars like Rosie O’Donnell and Al Roker have opened up about their own health battles. The deaths of stars like John Candy, Patrice O’Neal, and most recently James Gandolfini have also demonstrated the serious risks that could come from obesity-related diseases.
“It took a heart attack for me to learn to take care of myself,” O’Donnell revealed in a recent interview with People magazine.
O’Donnell has been working to tell others of her experience and is sharing details on what she is doing to generate a healthier lifestyle.
The matter of understanding how to prevent and treat obesity and its medical consequences is a subject of increasing public interest. To that end, the AMA finding seems sure to improve public understanding of the urgency and complexity of dealing with obesity with expertise and professionalism.