By Daniel Machin
Over two million adults in England could be eligible for weight loss surgery, say experts, as the obesity epidemic shows no sign of slowing down.
Bariatric surgery, such as the fitting of a gastric band or a gastric bypass operation, is currently available on the NHS to treat obese individuals whose lives are potentially at risk.
The treatment, which can cut the threat of death from obesity-related problems like heart disease and diabetes, is currently taken up by around 8,000 people each year.
But researchers from Imperial College London now claim that 5.4 per cent of adults, around 2.1 million, would qualify for the surgery.
Huge financial implications
Their study, which examined the health of nearly 9,500 people, found that despite evidence of the cost-effectiveness of weight loss surgery, surgery rates were estimated to be a third of the NHS's benchmark rate.
They say the number of people eligible for surgery "far exceeds" the estimated number of people currently undergoing the procedures, although they made a point of acknowledging the huge financial implications for the NHS if treatments were carried out in such greater numbers.
More investment would therefore probably be necessary to meet the growing need for the procedures.
The study also reveals that those meeting the criteria for bariatric surgery were more likely to be women, with lower educational qualifications, of lower socio-economic status and aged 40-54 years.
NHS guidelines state that weight loss surgery may be offered to those whose morbid obesity could kill them.
People who are morbidly obese and who have a serious condition such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure that could be improved if they lost weight also qualify under the guidelines.
People may be struggling to make lifestyle improvements
The researchers, who published their findings in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, claim several factors contributed to surgery rates being so low.
One theory is that the socio-economic groups most likely to need the treatment are the ones who make the least use of healthcare services.
Another explanation could be that people may be struggling to make the lifestyle improvements required before having surgery.
Furthermore, doctors may not be correctly identifying or referring eligible individuals, plus service provision may also be insufficient.
"Due to the limited capacity of health services to meet demand under existing criteria, greater investment into service provision may be required to meet a growing need," concluded the team from Imperial College London.
"This would have significant resource implications.
Since those eligible are more likely to be of a lower social class and have lower qualifications, such resources would need careful allocation to ensure equitable access on the basis of need."