Published in April Issue             

If you’ve been following the news over the last month or so, you’ve seen a lot of very positive coverage of bariatric surgery. There was the Oscar-nominated actress whose surgery “transformed her life,” the major article in one of the top newspapers in the country that explained “why weight-loss surgery works when diets don’t,” and the news that doctors consider bariatric surgery “a last best hope” for teens with obesity. There was also coverage of a study that shows bariatric surgery halves the risk of heart failure and local efforts to make bariatric surgery more accessible.

Stacy Brethauer, MD

“I see communicating to the media as an essential part of my job,” said Dr. Stacy Brethauer, president of the ASMBS. “The media has an important role to play in educating the public and we have to do whatever we can to help them do that as accurately and responsibly as they can.”

In February, Dr. Brethauer provided background and commentary to Jane Brody, the legendary health columnist for The New York Times about the metabolic benefits of bariatric surgery based on a 2015 study he did with researchers at the Cleveland Clinic. This was the same article whose very first sentence was, “Bariatric surgery is probably the most effective intervention we have in health care,” a comment from a clinical epidemiologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The article goes on to cite the mountain of evidence that has been accumulated about bariatric surgery, including a long-term study in JAMA that showed how durable gastric bypass is after 10 years. To further dispel the notion that obesity is simply the result of a
lack of willpower, the article also references a previous Times article on the ASMBS/NORC Survey on Obesity in America.

In March, Reuters did a story about the particular benefits of weight loss by surgery in lowering the risk of heart failure. This story about a study out of Sweden in the journal, Circulation, was carried in scores of media outlets throughout the country including the Washington Post. Researchers examined data on 25,805 gastric bypass patients and 13,701 patients on low-calorie diets. After following half of the patients for at least four years, people who had gastric bypass were found to be 46 percent less likely to have developed heart failure.

Also in March, media outlets from People magazine and USA Today to CNN, Good Morning America and Fox News, shouted the news that Empire star and Oscar nominee, Gabourey Sidibe, had “laparoscopic bariatric surgery.” The actress had the surgery (the type of bariatric procedure was steadfastly not identified) in May 2016 after being diagnosed with diabetes, and is talking about it now that she has written a memoir entitled, “This Is My Face: Try Not to Stare.”

She told People, "I truly didn’t want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes. I genuinely [would] worry all the time about losing my toes." She said, “surgery wasn’t the easy way out,” that she “wasn’t cheating by getting it done,” and that she wouldn’t have been able to lose as much weight without it. USA Today reports that over the past few months, the actress showed off her weight loss on Instagram, with her fans cheering her on in their comments.

The New York Times did a major story on the growing number of adolescents with severe obesity. The article posed the question, “Should very heavy teenagers have bariatric surgery, a radical operation that is the only treatment proved to produce lasting weight loss in severely obese people?” Several ASMBS members weighed in. Dr. Marc P. Michalsky said, “It obviously is a controversial area.” Dr. Kirk Reichard said insurers routinely turn down teens on the first request, leaving surgeons to appeal before they can operate. Describing the difficulties with access and acceptance, Dr. John Morton told the Times, “We still struggle with acceptance in the adult population. Acceptance in the pediatric community is
even worse.”

Two recently published studies on outcomes in younger patients were referenced including, one by researchers from Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati and another out of Sweden. Dr. Tom Inge, who led the Cincinnati study said more teens could have reached a normal weight if they had the operation when they were younger, before they got so obese. The average age of the patients in the study was 17.

Fox in San Antonio reported on how Dr. Mickey Seger and Texas State Senator José Menéndez are working to increase access to obesity treatments in Texas and pushing Texas lawmakers to recognize obesity as a serious health issue. The senator has filed a bill that would require group health insurance plans in the state to cover obesity treatments. “I know people are going to say ‘Well, if you include this as part of the insurance, it's going to raise the cost of insurance,’’ said Senator Menendez. “I think that in the long run by helping people not become obese, the cost will be lower to all of us.” Dr. Seger, commented, “Every day somebody leaves my office that cannot afford this [bariatric surgery], cannot find a way to get it done. And they do not have the coverage, despite having a normal regular otherwise good insurance plan.” Twenty-three states now have specific healthcare requirements to cover bariatric procedures while Texas does not.

“The news is positive about bariatric surgery, because bariatric surgery is safe and it works better than any other treatment for severe obesity,” said Dr. Raul J. Rosenthal, past president of the ASMBS. “We’ve known this for a long time, but it still makes news, and I think that’s a good thing. A lot of people still underestimate the power of the procedure.”