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Local surgeon says classification of obesity as a disease is long overdue

DAYTON, Ohio (September 30, 2013) – Lori Damron spent the majority of her young adult life as obese and feeling as if it was her fault because of it.

She could easily identify the reason for her struggle as the depression she battled, but her ability to shed the pounds was much more difficult. She was not comfortable with her weight and worked hard to lose it, but even weight loss programs and daily workouts only netted a 40-pound loss in two years. The thought that her weight might influence the future course of her four-year-old daughter’s lifestyle and eating habits is what caused her to dig deeper for help.

She found a lifeline during a visit to her primary care physician, who delivered the hard news that Ms. Damron was pre-hypertensive and pre-diabetic, but gave her a new option: weight loss surgery. Ms. Damron was very interested and at 38 years old and 285 pounds, she underwent a vertical sleeve gastrectomy at Premier Weight Loss Solutions, a Premier Physician Network practice. A year after her surgery, Ms. Damron has lost more than 100 pounds and, more importantly, improved her health so that she was no longer on the verge of developing diabetes or hypertension.

“You just have so much more energy and you just feel so good,” Ms. Damron said. “I had battled depression and the surgery itself didn’t take away my depression, but it did give me back my confidence to do other things and after doing that it was like my depression was gone.”

Today, others like Ms. Damron may be given hope for a second chance. In June, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially announced it would recognize obesity as a disease. The announcement was welcome news to Ms. Damron’s bariatric surgeon, Donovan Teel, MD. One of the top reasons individuals do not pursue weight loss surgery is a lack of insurance coverage, and Dr. Teel said that’s an indicator of how obesity is viewed in light of other diseases.

“Obesity has a tremendous amount of prejudice and bias against it because it is a disease that is directly visualized on the outside of the person opposed to most diseases that take place on the inside of a person where it cannot be seen,”  Dr. Teel, Medical Director for Bariatric Services at Miami Valley Hospital, said. “The perception is that it is entirely based on choices and that it is a self-induced disease – which certainly there is a role for choices in it – but it is more complicated than that. As it is with many other diseases, genetics and the metabolic rate of a person play a significant role.”

The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) calls the AMA’s announcement a watershed moment. According to the ASMBS, obesity is one of the greatest public health and economic threats facing the United States and yet many private health insurers, employers and state health plans specifically exclude the treatment of obesity from their coverage policies. Individuals with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 have a 50 to 100 percent increased risk of premature death compared to healthy weight individuals as well as an increased risk of developing more than 30 obesity-related diseases and conditions including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Teel said the benefits of weight loss surgery can no longer be ignored. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, long-term mortality after gastric bypass surgery was significantly reduced, particularly deaths from diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

“I would challenge you to find one other area of medicine where there is such a high return on investment,” Dr. Teel said. “Where you put a certain amount of money in and you get a reduction in cost over time. Obesity can be extremely expensive – especially when you are talking about treating diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.”

The AMA’s announcement is personal for Ms. Damron, who was fortunate enough to receive insurance coverage for her surgery.

“It kind of makes me relieved because so many people think that you are just lazy or stupid,” said Ms. Damron, who appears at weight loss surgery workshops to encourage those considering the surgery. “I wasn’t lazy. I was busy. I was doing stuff all the time, and I didn’t always eat unhealthy foods, but it just wouldn’t come off.”

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