Obesity as a disease: A doctor’s take on what it means

Two women cross the street in Barre, Vt. In its biggest policy change on weight and health to date, the American Medical Association has recognized obesity as a disease. (Associated Press -- Toby Talbot)

Two women cross the street in Barre, Vt. In its biggest policy change on weight and health to date, the American Medical Association has recognized obesity as a disease. (Associated Press — Toby Talbot)

Dr. Marijka Grey said doctors aren’t always comfortable talking about obesity with their obese patients — especially if physicians are obese, too.

“Doctors are people too,” Grey said. “Talking about weight is a little bit hard.”

Last week, the American Medical Association — the largest organization of physicians in the U.S. — voted to classify obesity as a disease. The recognition doesn’t carry any legal authority. However, it could sway doctors to address the issue more openly with obese patients, and lead to greater investment to develop and reimburse obesity treatments.

We caught up with Grey, associate medical director for quality and innovation at WellSpan Health, to discuss her thoughts on what this ruling means.

Grey said physicians realize the impact obesity has on health conditions, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease. And now that the AMA considers obesity a disease, it will likely become more standard for doctors to discuss it with their patients.

The ruling also could make treatment — lifestyle changes and new medications — more accessible for patients. For example, she said, WeightWatchers and Jenny Craig have proved to be successful, but some people who are obese can’t afford to pay for the programs. Also, insurance companies don’t always cover new medications and procedures.

One-third of Americans are obese and another one-third are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grey said society as a whole is getting larger, which has created perception bias. For example, someone who is overweight or obese might compare themselves to someone who is larger and think their own weight isn’t really a problem.

“This ruling helps reset our thermostat,” she said. “It helps us say, ‘Where we are is not where we should be. We should be a leaner society, over all.”

Grey said the impact of the AMA’s ruling is still uncertain. However, physicians hope it will enable them to help people get healthier.

More about obesity

Last week, York received a grant to supplement its efforts to curb obesity. It will include partially subsidized WeightWatchers memberships for city residents who qualify.

About Leigh Zaleski

I'm a health features reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News and healthy living blogger for No Sweat, York. Contact me with story ideas at lzaleski@ydr.com, 717-771-2101 or @leighzaleski on Twitter.
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