Obese British Columbians at risk because province isn't funding enough bariatric surgeries, says surgeon

Obesity rates are on the rise globally and a B.C. medical director says the province is not funding enough surgeries to help people living with excessive weight improve their health.

Dr. Sharadh Sampath, medical director of the Richmond Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program, said there are currently over 3,000 British Columbians waiting for bariatric surgery and the province only covers 400 procedures annually. 

Bariatric surgery, which involves several small incisions made to the abdomen as part of the weight loss procedure, is done when diet and exercise haven't worked and a person's weight poses serious health problems.

"There aren't caps on most other medical treatments and I don't understand why there would be a cap on this disease. It's a disease like any other and requires treatment," said Sampath Monday on The Early Edition.

According to the BC Obesity Society, of which Sampath is president, patients in the province can wait up to 39 months between being referred by a general practitioner and having the surgery. The cost of the procedure, plus five years of follow-up care, is $13,000.

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Sampath, said there is a societal misconception, including among some health professionals, that obese people are not suffering from a chronic disease and "should really put down the fork" and help themselves.

"There's a misinterpretation that obesity is a function of laziness or lack of willpower, but these people are the hardest working patients I've come across," said Sampath.

"They've done the most extreme diets and lost and regained the same 100,125 pounds, many times in their life putting their health at risk, so this is the hardest solution."

The World Health Organization says obesity has more than doubled since 1980, reaching epidemic proportions. Since the late 1970s, the number of adult Canadians considered obese has also more than doubled to 28 per cent — over 10 million people — according to the Public Health Agency of Canada

Public health experts say if global trends continue, one in five adults worldwide will be obese by 2025.

The BC Obesity Society relates excessive weight to diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, sleep apnea, depression, osteoarthritis and cancer.

Statistics from the society show bariatric surgery results in the remission of up to 82 per cent of type 2 diabetes cases, 70 per cent of hypertension cases and 25 per cent of heart disease cases.

While B.C. only performs 400 of the procedures a year, provinces like Quebec and Ontario are performing three to five times as many surgeries per capita.

The Ministry of Health responded by saying health authorities have been working to increase the number of surgeries performed and reduce wait-times based on regional demands. 

"Each year, the Ministry of Health consults with regional health authorities regarding how many bariatric procedures and pre-conditioning services can be performed in the fiscal year based on: the number of patients who are suitable for this treatment in that year, number of procedures performed the previous year, patient conditions and pre-surgery services required," a statement to CBC News read.

The ministry says there are 109 patients on the wait-list and the median wait time for surgery is approximately 5.3 weeks. This, it says, is an improvement compared to 2010/11 when there were 488 patients on the wait-list, with a median wait time of 126.3 weeks.

To hear the complete interview with Dr. Sharadh Sampath on The Early Edition, tap the audio below: