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Can I Get Weight Loss Surgery on the NHS?

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The simple truth is that it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to get weight loss surgery through the NHS. Although the guidelines for the NHS say that you are eligible for weight loss surgery if you have a BMI (body mass index) above 35 (plus an associated health problem), the likelihood of you actually getting surgery is pretty remote.

Why is that you may wonder, and it’s a reasonable question, but the simple fact is that the NHS just doesn’t have the resources, financial or practical, to deliver an operation to all of the people who are eligible. Over a million people in the UK are eligible for weight loss surgery, but only 15,000 NHS operations are done each year.   

In addition to the above, the process you have to go through for the NHS operation is sometimes off putting too. You would have to get a GP referral, then go through a 6-12 month weight loss programme and then finally make it onto a surgeon’s waiting list before you could proceed. This could take years even if you are a most deserving case.

There just isn’t the money to scratch the surface of the demand for weight loss surgery. Millions of people in the country would be benefit from an operation, but only a fraction get it.Why is that the case you may ask. Well, it’s not the NHS’s fault but the cost of the services that it provides keeps going up, and it’s going up faster than inflation. When you consider that the drugs and instruments that the NHS uses are all going up quickly, and also that the amount being spent on defending legal claims (the disgraceful increase in spurious medical malpractice claims against the NHS a topic for another blog – don’t get me started on ambulance chasing lawyers !!) is escalating very rapidly, there simply isn’t the money to pay for more surgery.

Add in to the mix that the population is growing, that it’s getting older and that it needs even more NHS care, you can see that in reality it would be impossible for any government (of any political persuasion) to keep up with it. And it’s not just about money. If the NHS had the financial resources it’d still need the surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and other clinicians required to do more procedures and support patients afterwards. Those resources are already fully stretched. I suspect that most of us know the NHS is stretched to breaking point and that more money won’t solve it, we just don’t want to admit it. 

We’ve all seen stories about hip replacements being delayed unless they are essential so it’s no surprise that there just won’t be the money for weight loss surgery in any volume. The irony is that the NHS would save more on drugs and other treatments that are no longer needed by obese patients were they to do the weight loss surgery, it has what they call a fast return on capital, but there simply won’t be the money or the resources to do so. There isn’t the political will either as all too many people still blame obesity on the patients themselves. We all get tired of hearing obese people being blamed for their lack of ‘willpower’.

These people just don’t understand but it creates an environment in which there is a lack of sympathy for obese patients and if there is ever an argument between funding obesity surgery or child cancer treatment, we all know where the majority of the public would choose to have the resources focused. I am even hearing that NHS weight loss surgery numbers will drop below 10,000 operations in 2017. That is making it very marginal as its hard for NHS Trusts to maintain a service when so few cases are available. The number of procedures could drop even further in the years to come. Rationing is a graphic term to use, but these limited NHS resources do need to be rationed.It all means that those people wanting a weight loss surgery procedure and the benefits that go with it are likely to have to go private. On the positive side you can have the surgery more quickly and without having to jump through a lot of eligibility hoops. However, you will need to pay!

The days when the NHS is focused on emergency care and cancer treatment seems to be ever closer, and weight loss surgery, along with other elective procedures, might only be available in from private providers.

If you are reading this and thinking about a weight loss surgery for yourself, why not see your GP and ask him or her to explain the process to get a referral for surgery on the NHS. If it seems impossible, then perhaps explore the possibilities with a specialist private provider.

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