Last week’s announcement by the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) council on science and public health cheered me. It said that the AMA should not designate obesity a disease, because doing so was unlikely to improve health outcomes and because the most widely utilized obesity metric — the body mass index or BMI — was simplistic and flawed. It’s a reasonable and principled stance, which should have been the first clue that it was doomed.
The AMA’s board and delegates proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by ignoring their own scientific council and labeling obesity as a disease. To be clear, the decision is almost purely symbolic; it has no legal force or authority, but it does up the ante in the debate with insurers and employers over what care elements should be covered and reimbursed. In other words, this is about money. Obesity: the new ATM for the health care system.
I’m just curious about where physicians have been for the past, oh, thirty years. Since 1980, as Americans have morphed into the fattest culture in the history of Western civilization, physician supply per 100,000 population has increased about 50%. Per capita medical care spending has increased from roughly $1,100 to over $8,400. 1980 was also the last time that roughly half of US adults were normal weight. Now, only about a quarter of American adults have a normal BMI.
Were US physicians blindfolded as they encountered patients growing incrementally larger with each visit? Were they keeping their mouths shut about the obvious — gee, I really think you should get out for some walking and limit the snacks — because they were awaiting a chance to make more creative use of ICD and CPT codes?
Obesity’s journey from maladaptive response of normal physiology to disease happened on their watch, and watching is apparently what they did best. Until now. With wellness mania in full swing, the AMA has decided to get in on the act of medicalizing normal so that we can all become patients sooner rather than later. Why waste time waiting for people to get sick when you can just tell them that they’re sick now, even if they’re not, treat them, even when it’s unnecessary, and get paid for doing it. C’mon on down, the price is right!
This decision’s willful disregard of salient facts is staggering: first, most obesity is not the result of a disease process or a frank genetic defect, it’s the result of algebra. We eat more and move less than our ancestors, even of just four generations ago. Second, a surprising number of obese people are still quite healthy. Third, the ones who work hard enough to improve their fitness level will do more for their survival than those who remain unfit, regardless of BMI. Fourth, telling everyone who’s obese that they are sick is a cruel canard that encourages dependency on the professions in such a way that must make Ivan Illich roll over in his grave.
So, here’s the challenge for the AMA. Since you’ve now told the culture to show you the (obesity-related) money, here’s what we taxpayers and funders of your enterprise want: win the war on obesity using a very clear metric…restore the status quo ante…the distribution of BMI in American adults in 1980. And, while you’re at it…fix the industry’s obsession with overdiagnosis and overtreatment because there’s no money to be made in the obverse. Finally, measure both fitness and health-related quality of life in all these “sick” people so we can see how much they really benefit from your efforts. Still think that medicalizing a lifestyle problem was the best step toward long-term success? Fat chance.
Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness. An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog. He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.