AMA Vote on Obesity Could Boost Treatment, Prevention

At its annual meeting, the American Medical Association voted to classify obesity as a disease—a move it hopes will affect the way the medical world treats the condition.

It’s official: Obesity is a disease.

That’s what the American Medical Association decided earlier this week, in a policy shift that could significantly affect public perception of the condition and the way doctors treat patients. More details:

The issue: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  more than one-third of U.S. adults are considered obese, generally  defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Obesity can have severe health consequences, such as contributing to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes as well as increasing the risk of some forms of cancer.

The decision: Tuesday’s vote by the AMA House of Delegates at the association’s annual meeting in Chicago aims to boost treatment and prevention efforts. In adopting the new definition, the physicians association said that obesity meets the criteria used to define a disease, including the impairment of normal body function, and cited clinical evidence identifying it as a “multi-metabolic and hormonal disease state” that can affect appetite, energy, fertility,  blood pressure and other functions. “Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D., said in a statement.  The New York Times reports that the policy change was counter to the recommendation of  the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health. The council studied the issued and determined that obesity shouldn’t be classified as a disease due to the simplistic and flawed nature of the BMI, which uses height and body weight to calculate a number that indicates a person’s fat level. But several other medical associations urged the AMA to make the change, including the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) and the American College of Cardiology.

The impact: While the AMA policy does not have legal authority, many observers, such as the Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Washington University School of Medicine, say the organization’s decisions are influential, even outside the medical profession. “The most important aspect of the AMA decision is that the AMA is a respected representative of American medicine,” Klein told USA Today. “Their opinion can influence policy makers who are in a position to do more to support interventions and research to prevent and treat obesity.” The impact could be felt in a number of areas, including health insurance coverage for obesity treatments.

Other groups react: In a Wednesday press release, a number of other associations involved with obesity, including AACE, the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, the American Society of Bariatric Physicians (ASBP), and The Obesity Society, spoke favorably of the new policy. “Classifying obesity as a disease will reduce weight bias,” said Dr. Ethan Lazarus, who was ASBP’s representative for the AMA House of Delegates meeting. “It means that medical students and residents will receive training in what obesity is and in the best treatment approaches. It means that the medical community will have incentive to research and develop new and better prevention and treatment strategies. But most importantly, it communicates to individuals affected by obesity that this is a chronic disease, not a problem of personal responsibility.”



Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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