A study has uncovered that most Australians that are dealing with clinically severe obesity do not have access to specialist healthcare in the public hospital system.

The report, that was published in the journal called “Clinical Obesity,” indicated that of the limited number of specialist obesity programs that were available, access to those by patients were restricted because of stringent entry criteria, long wait times, lack of regional and rural services and costs that came from patients’ own pockets.

Services that do exist have over 300 patients stuck on waiting lists.

Evan Atlantis, the lead researcher of this study, explained that patients with severe obesity often had numerous health conditions that cannot be met by a GP alone.

“Thousands of people who may benefit from specialist healthcare are currently not having their needs addressed by the public health system,” said Atlantis of Western Sydney University.

A group of leading obesity experts that also did work in the study, including the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute’s Professor John Dixon, are appealing for substantial advances as to how obesity is tackled.

“The current national approach to assessing and managing clinically severe obesity would surely be unacceptable if it were applied to other complex chronic health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease,” Dixon said.

A million Aussies with severe obesity

An estimated one million Australian adults are currently dealing with
clinically severe obesity, which is characterised as having a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or higher and a co-existing obesity-related medical condition.

“It is obesity that is severe enough that it requires medical treatment,” said Atlantis.

People who were referred to specialist obesity services have, for the most part, been unable to sustain prior weight loss, and may have complicated conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiopulmonary diseases and depression.

Specialised obesity services can comprise of non-surgical care, weight loss medication and bariatric surgery.

“These patients have complex conditions requiring services from a range of healthcare professionals, including clinical psychologists, expert dietic services, specialist nurse services and exercise specialists,” remarked Atlantis.

Limited access to services

With the use of hospital and survey data from 15 of the 16 public hospitals that are offering specialist obesity services in Australia, the researchers discovered the options differed between hospitals.

The small number of services that are accessible are mostly under-resourced and only found in a few major cities, identified Atlantis.

“Unless you’re living in a major city close to one of these hospitals providing special healthcare for obesity, you’re simply not going to be able to access those services.”

He added that the demand for specialised obesity services in Australia far outweighed the available supply.

“Most of these hospitals have prolonged wait times … people are on the wait list with referrals dating four, five, six years,” said Atlantis.

The researchers also recognised holes in clinic staff and services, as well as patient access to publicly funded weight loss medication and surgery — roughly 88% of bariatric surgery is done in private hospitals.

“There are a few out-of-pocket costs … and that’s another barrier to access,” stated Atlantis said.