Weighty problem facing regional hospitals

Sarah Wiedersehn

Regional hospitals are struggling to cope with the extra time and resources it requires to treat obese patients, creating tension between doctors and patients, a large medical conference has been told.

Dr Jamie Beit, the Director of Anaesthesia at Toowoomba Hospital in regional Queensland has given a clinical snapshot of 250 elective surgery patients to highlight the impact the obesity epidemic is having on surgical wards.

According to the figures, just 10 per cent of the 141 females were considered in the healthy weight range according to the body mass index (BMI), while 60 per cent were classified obese.

A concerning 23 per cent were severely obese (Class 3).

Of the 109 male patients, 22 per cent were in the healthy weight range.

"We have over twice as many people who are class 3 obese than normal weight and from a service provision point of view that does create significant problems," Dr Beit said.

With 35 per cent of all adults living in regional areas of Australia, Dr Beit suspects this is just not an issue isolated to Toowoomba Hospital.

Senior Specialist Dr Rebecca Wood at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney agreed.

"Obese patients come through very, very frequently for elective and emergency surgery and you have to manage that appropriate for the clinical setting," Dr Wood said.

The biggest issue that comes with treating an obese patient is the time and resources it requires to prep them for surgery.

This in turn can create frustration among the busy often time-poor staff, affecting doctor/patient rapport, said Dr Beit.

"We take longer to provide a safe service because it takes us longer to put in drips, it requires more time for surgery and can often take longer for the (obese) patient to wake up," said Dr Beit.

"Where you see frustration and problems occurring is when extra time is not allowed for this and staff become time pressured."

"Part of my job as director of anaesthesia is to deal with complaints from patients and staff and I am very aware of the sensitivities involved but the numbers are what they are," said Dr Beit.

But rather than shaming the patients, Dr Beit said hospitals have a duty of care to implement practices to manage the extra demand.

One simple step is to add the patients' weight to daily surgical lists to ensure more time was allocated in advance to prepare for the needs of obese patients.

"The majority of morbidly obese patients are acutely aware that they have a weight problem. It is my impression that most of them have tried to lose weight. We need to be receptive and accepting of this, and do all that we can to provide them with the best care possible."

Dr Beit was a speaker at the being held at the International Convention Centre in Sydney from May 7-11.