Why spend NHS money on weight loss surgery?

I listened to a fascinating debate on The Today Programme this morning, about whether NHS resources should be spent on surgery to aid weight loss, for people deemed ‘morbidly obese’.

For these people, who have a BMI of 40 or over, their extra weight is an immediate threat to their health. They are at risk of diabetes, arthritis, heart attacks, cancer and more. They will probably have spent years trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, and be used to failure. It’s very hard to lose weight and keep it off, once you’ve reached that position.

Yes, as John Humphries said, they are in that position because they have eaten too much and taken too little exercise. But let’s have some compassion here. Many morbidly obese people are all but house-bound, with little pleasure in life apart from food. Do we leave them there, and spend NHS money treating their inevitable poor health? Or do we intervene with a treatment we know can work?

Weight loss surgery (called bariatric surgery) is a fast-working, very effective treatment for people with a BMI over 40. It can reverse a diabetes diagnosis, help people lose the weight they need, and keep it off. It can transform lives, and a recent analysis of data showed it adds years of life to the average person having surgery.

Three years, to be precise, for a 42-year-old woman with a BMI of 45 ( the average age and weight of a patient having gastric band surgery). The analysis showed that, for people with a BMI over 40, the majority would gain at least one year of life from surgery. Younger people, women and people with the highest weights had most to gain.

The surgery isn’t risk free, but then no surgery is. The risks of leaving people to struggle with declining health and a miserable quality of life is greater. That’s why NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, said weight loss surgery should be funded on the NHS for people with a BMI over 40.

John Humphries questioned the morality of treating what could be considered a self-inflicted condition with NHS money. But I would argue that the moral position is clear – an effective treatment is available to relieve serious suffering and extend life. Let’s use it.

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