HEALTH chiefs have launched a public consultation over the future of surgery in Yorkshire for patients with dangerous levels of obesity.
Numbers of operations carried out on morbidly obese people have increased significantly in the past decade as the obesity epidemic has grown.
Around 1,250 patients from the region are scheduled to go under the knife for the problem in the 12 months to March – nearly double the figure of two years ago – but access varies depending on where people live.
Now officials in the region are carrying out a review of the criteria for funding surgery.
Obesity surgery is usually carried out only as a last resort with patients suffering severe complications from obesity-related illnesses.
Patients shed huge amounts of weight if their operation is successful but the surgery does carry risks.
Spending in the field is one area likely to come under scrutiny as the NHS looks for major cash savings in coming years. The operations are expensive at nearly 8,000 apiece but can deliver big reductions in future spending on life-threatening illnesses linked to severe obesity including high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, respiratory problems and diabetes.
Members of the public are being invited to give their views on NHS funding of operations for the morbidly obese, together with patients, carers and health experts.
Among the areas being considered are prioritising some people over others and drawing up rules enabling people to get equal access to care according to where they live.
People with a body-mass index (BMI) of more than 40 are recommended as suitable for surgery in national guidelines or above 35 if they have complications.
In practice many primary care trusts pay for surgery only for people with BMIs above 50 or 45 if they have complications.
Patients either have gastric bypass surgery or a gastric band fitted which makes them feel full after only small amounts of food.
Estimates suggest around 70,000 to 90,000 people in the region have a BMI over 40, with around one per cent of these with a BMI of more than 50.
The obesity survey includes several questions about NHS surgery. Respondents are asked their opinion about whether three categories of people should be eligible for NHS-funded surgery.
These categories are: Anyone who is morbidly obese; people that have already tried to lose weight; and people who are morbidly obese and have other illnesses such as diabetes that could improve after successful surgery.
A question also asks respondents for their view on whether the NHS should fund plastic surgery for patients with excess skin following weight loss due to obesity surgery. They are asked if it should be NHS funded for those who need it for health reasons and whether it should be publicly funded for those wanting to improve their appearance.
Charities working on behalf of weight loss surgery patients fear that reductions in NHS funding could mean many lives blighted for those who cannot afford private surgery.
Bianca Scollen, a Leeds-based volunteer with charity Weight Loss Surgery Information and Support, said: "Anything that reduces access to weight loss surgery is of great concern."
She said publicly-funded weight loss surgery had helped hundreds of people to lead more productive lives, allowing many to get jobs for the first time in their lives.
"This surgery completely turns people's lives around. Many people go onto get jobs and contribute to society, pay taxes and have a life. That is something that gets completely forgotten."
She said obese people were "stigmatised" as lazy and greedy but in many cases they had suffered childhood abuse and saw food as a comfort. The risk associated with surgery were "over-estimated", she said.
Anyone who wants to take part can call 01226 433681 or go to the website www.yhscg.nhs.uk. Completed questionnaires need to be returned by Monday, January 10.
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