Last Wednesday the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) released their latest state of the nation report, and Australians are fatter than ever. The report stated that 62.7 percent of adults were overweight or obese in 2012, up by 1.5 per cent on 2008. The last time anyone looked at the economic impact of our burgeoning weight problem was in 2005. Back then it was estimated we’d spent $21 billion on fatties in that year alone. So we can only assume that we’re spending more now.
Most of that spending has gone into hospital resources. Janet Hope, who was a former nurse with Monash Health, recalls a situation before hospitals were properly equipped, when a patient was too heavy to be carried from a building. “We had to get two ambulances and a pallet lifter,” she explains. “We got them out of a bungalow with the pallet lifter, then we had to empty all the equipment from one ambulance, into the other, just so we could fit them in.” From that jarring low-point, Janet went on to found the Australasian Bariatric Innovations Group (AusBig) “out of concern for poor care of the bariatric patient.” If you haven’t heard the word before Bariatic is the industry term for overweight, obese and morbidly obese.
This year in August, AusBig will host our first national obesity-themed medical conference. Imagine a car show, but for oversized hospital gear. Presenters include Prius Healthcare, Midmed and Baricare, all of which build extra-large beds, wheelchairs, stretchers and walkers. A sales rep who wished to be not be named explained that while specialist equipment still only makes up 10 percent of their business, a few years ago it was barley moving. “Ten years ago we were making equipment with a maximum load of 200 kilograms, now we have hospitals asking for 450 kilos, and we’re getting a lot of calls.”
So is our population suddenly huge, or have hospitals just suddenly noticed? “I think it’s a bit of both,” says Prof John Dixon, who is a scientific advisor to Obesity Australia. “In the early 90s only one percent the population had a BMI over 50 (the scientific description for the super-obese) while now we’re at six percent. So the numbers of overweight are increasing, but it’s the tip-of-the-iceberg group who are driving change for the hospitals.”
Ill-equipped hospitals dealing with the super-obese are the reason people are being referred to zoos for CT scans. This sad reality was reported by News Corp last year after two patients were sent to the Veterinary Hospital in Werribee to be scanned by equipment designed for horses. On the one hand, you could read stories like that and feel better about your own winter gains, or you could see it as a failure of the health system to keep abreast of patient necessity.
John Dixon says it’s the latter. “We’ve got to change the idea that obesity is a lack of self-control,” he says. “Firstly, obesity is 50 percent genetic, followed by the circumstance the person was born into. The first few years of life, including the diet they received in utero, affects how that person will live for the rest of their life. Despite that, what we hear is that the most significant form of discrimination comes from healthcare professionals.”
I took this to a nurse friend of mine, but she claimed her attitude wasn’t at all about discrimination. “Next time I have another 300 kilogram nightmare to deal with, you can come in and see what a burden they are,” she said. “They’re actually a risk to my health as I’m at risk of injuring myself looking after them.”
Dixon acknowledges that “OH&S dangers are there, but that simply means hospitals need to be properly equipped to deal with them, not that we should permit ostracism.” He didn’t mention where that money should come from in this brave new budget world, but he did point out that hospitals should deal with illnesses, not make value judgments about who deserves what.
Given that humanity spent the last hundred millennia fighting for survival, a post-win readjustment phase was always inevitable. It’ll take a while, but for the entrepreneurial there really is an opportunity in bariatric medical equipment. As people get fatter, and hospitals stop resisting their jobs, it’s really the racket to be in.
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