How medical tourism can help Europe fight chronic obesity

 

Obesity should be formally recognised as a chronic disease, campaigners urge, saying Europe is in the grip of an obesity epidemic with half its citizens overweight.

Overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A crude population measure of obesity is the body mass index (BMI), a person’s weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of his or her height (in metres). A person with a BMI of 30 or more is generally considered obese. A person with a BMI equal to or more than 25 is considered overweight.

Overweight and obesity are major risk factors for a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Once considered a problem only in high-income countries, obesity is now dramatically on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.

Sedentary modern lifestyles and over-eating have raised obesity to the number one public health challenge of the 21st Century, with rapidly increasing childhood obesity of particular concern to Western nations. The prevalence of obesity has more than trebled in many European countries since the 1980s. People consume more calories per day, in particular from fat, whereas their physical activity levels have gone down.

To tackle obesity, the European Commission set up a EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health. Since March 2005, the platform has been bringing together industry, consumer groups and health experts to find ways to combat obesity. The emphasis is on self-regulation and voluntary commitments from the food and drink industry. In the World Health Organisation (WHO) European ministerial conference on counteracting obesity in November 2006, health ministers signed a European Charter pledging to place obesity high up on the European public health and political agendas and to halt the rise in obesity by 2015.

Campaigners argue that voluntary agreements are useless and Europe must formally recognise obesity as a chronic disease and help sufferers to find ways of living with the condition. This would require the creation of formal healthcare policies to address what is now a EU-wide epidemic. At present only Portugal recognises obesity as a chronic disease.

Obesity treatment is rarely covered by insurance, and few EU health services will give free treatment in anything other than extreme cases-in fact often they will refuse certain types of treatment if the patient is too obese. The aim of obesity treatment is to help the patient achieve and maintain a healthier weight. Serious cases of obesity may be treated with weight-loss medication or even surgery. One of the most common surgical means of treating obesity is gastric bypass surgery, in which the anatomy of the patient’s digestive system is changed so that the amount of food the patient can eat and digest is limited.

Many medical professionals accept that to kick-start obesity treatment, the patient has to be removed from the temptations of daily life by going to a hospital, clinic, spa or weight-loss centre. Unless obesity is dealt with now, Europe will see people dying ten to twenty years before their parents. The various EU countries, some in dire economic straits, have no money and little intent to do anything more than offer advice.

So we have a huge gap between need and provision, into which medical tourism providers can step and feel they are helping individuals and the state too.

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