AMA declares obesity a disease

Members voted on Tuesday

Topics: Behavioral Health, Service Lines, Access to Care, Quality, Performance Improvement, Appropriateness

June 18, 2013

Updated at 1:15 p.m.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has officially recognized obesity as a disease, a designation that physicians hope will improve patient outcomes and reimbursements for obesity-related care, Forbes reports.

At the AMA's annual meeting in Chicago on Tuesday, the association's House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to "recognize obesity as a disease state with multiple pathophysiology aspects requiring a range of interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention," Forbes reports.

Previously, AMA considered obesity a major public health issue, but did not give it a "disease" designation. Although this week's decision has no legal standing, federal and state policymakers often adopt the group's positions when drafting medical and public health regulations, according to Forbes.



Physicians debate the issue 

AMA's vote also follows broader discussion around obesity's causes, and whether physicians are fully empowered—and incented—to treat obese patients.

In a recent report, AMA's Council on Science and Public Health had outlined the benefits and drawbacks of classifying obesity as a disease. The council ultimately maintained that it could not "determine conclusively" whether obesity is a medical disease.

However, several medical societies—including the American College of Cardiology and the American Urological Association—urged the association to reconsider that stance, and AMA had brought the issue up for about 45 minutes of debate on Sunday.

The American Society of Bariatric Physicians' Ethan Lazarus argued at the AMA meeting that the association had not evaluated the prejudice experienced by overweight people—including bias by their physicians. In addition, some doctors argued that classifying obesity as a disease would ensure the physicians are paid for treating obesity.

However, some physicians at the meeting argued that declaring obesity a disease would "medicalize a condition" that affects nearly one-third of the nation. Moreover, they said obesity does not meet the definition of a "disease" as overweight patients can still be in good health, and some argued that obesity is a result of lifestyle choice, not medical illness.

Meanwhile, some argue that defining obesity as a disease could cause overweight patients' insurance premiums to increase and affect their employment.

America's Health Insurance Plans spokesperson Susan Pisano told Forbes that the group understands "obesity as a condition and a risk factor for other disease." She added that the "important thing is to get programs and supports in place to address it, as health plans have done and are doing" (Japsen, Forbes, 6/18; Robeznieks, Modern Physician, 6/16 [subscription required]; Japsen, Forbes, 6/16; PittmanMedPage Today, 6/17).  

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