The American Medical Association has officially recognized obesity as a disease.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” Dr. Patrice Harris, an A.M.A. board member said in a statement.
Spokespeople for the A.M.A said its decision will help doctors counsel obese patients and encourage insurance companies to reimburse for obesity drugs and surgery.
“For physicians, this is a huge achievement,” said Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Grammercy pediatrics and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Since insurance companies did not recognize and cover the costs of treating obesity in children, a number of families could not afford to be seen by a specialist.
Insurance companies will cover conditions that are linked to obesity, such as hypertension and diabetes, but won’t cover the costs of obesity.
Dr. Hes said she could only refer her patients to nutritionists if they have diabetes, otherwise the insurance companies will not cover the costs. Since many children do not have medical complications such as diabetes yet, parents are forced to pay out of pocket.
Dr. Hes says the classification of obesity as a disease comes from the public demanding it.
“Nobody wants to be overweight,” she said.
She recounts a story of a young patient, whose parents were paying $160 per month on medication to treat the child’s obesity. Due to the high costs, the parents stopped giving the medication since they couldn’t afford it anymore.
The decision made by the A.M.A. goes against the recommendation by the Council of Science and Public Health – a subcommittee of the A.M.A. – that researched whether or not to classify obesity as a disease.
In a study issued last year, the Council found that diagnosing obesity is too difficult and unreliable.
“Given the existing limitation of B.M.I. [body mass index] to diagnose obesity in clinical practice, it is unclear that recognizing obesity as a disease, as opposed to a ‘condition’ or ‘disorder.’ Will result in improved health outcomes.”
The Council suggested that obesity is not a disease on its own but rather a risk for other condition. By classifying it as a disease the A.M.A. is concluding that one in three Americans suffer the disease.
According to reports, the council is worried this would lead to an over dependence on drugs.
Despite the council’s suggestions, the A.M.A. classified obesity as a “multimetabolic and hormonal disease state” and stated that “suggestion that obesity is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle exemplified by overeating and/or inactivity is equivalent to suggestion that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes.”
Dr. Andre Giannakopoulos, a physician board certified in internal medicine and obesity management at Westbury, N.Y.’s Center for Medical Weight Loss stresses the dangers of obesity also citing that it is not just a problem of eating less and exercising more.
“Obesity is associated with more than 50 medical problems,” he said. “[Obesity] will bankrupt the country in health care costs of something is not done about it.”
Despite the magnitude of the problem, Dr. Giannakopoulos is hopeful for the future now that obesity has been classified as a disease.
“This is a time that we’ve been waiting for and is long overdue,” he said. “But I think this will help. It will allow more people to get the treatment that they need.”
Follow Mary Ann Georgantopoulos on Twitter @marygeorgant