Published in The Sydney Morning Herald on June 22, 2016
Australia is the fifth-fattest country in the OECD, yet unlike the fattest – the US – we do not classify obesity as a disease.
The majority of researchers and doctors, speaking Wednesday’s Obesity Australia summit said patients would receive better medical care if obesity were classified.
Currently GPs can only encourage weight loss and tell patients obesity is a “risk factor” for many life-threatening diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.
Professor John Dixon, of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, said patient care should be the priority.
“Of course it’s a disease when it causes impairment of health,” he said. “Of course it’s a disease when it causes disability and dysfunction. No one in their right mind would actually think otherwise. It’s a bit sad really that as a result we neglect our patients.”
Stephen Simpson, Executive Director of Obesity Australia, said: “If you classify it as a disease, it would ease the personal stigma and burden because they could say ‘I am at this state in a diseased condition and it isn’t purely a failure of my willpower’.
“It would focus the minds of the health system on developing integrated pathways to prevention, early-stage intervention and medical intervention,” he said.
Other experts suggested classifying obesity as a disease would likely encourage drugs and surgery over alternative treatment.
Professor Gary Wittert, Head of the Medicine Discipline at the University of Adelaide, said: “If we simply say, obesity is defined by ‘this’ and take a black and white approach, we abrogate responsibility to an individual to match a number or target. It just doesn’t work like that, it’s absurd.”
Panelists also raised concern about economic and government implications, saying that health insurance premiums would increase, and change in government policy would have to coincide with the re-classification.
Professor Wittert said that weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) were not the only things that determined a person’s health.
“You can improve your health without losing weight. I think the nihilistic approach and the argument that there’s a notional disease built around a number falls into all of that,” he said.
The US has classified obesity as a disease since 2013.