Obesity Op ‘Scandal’ Attacked

People in Wales waiting for NHS surgery to treat obesity are dying before their operations take place due to a lack of funding, a surgeon has claimed. Junk food addicts like 32-stone Jemma Butler, 24, from Swansea, are being told they are not yet big enough or ill enough to have bariatric surgery.

Prof John Baxter told BBC Wales’ Week In Week Out it was a “scandal”. Health Commission Wales was unaware of patients dying waiting for surgery and said it worked within fixed resources.

Ms Butler, from the Plasmarl area of the city, has been a comfort eater since a child. She asked doctors to remove most of her stomach – making it physically impossible for her to continue eating so much – after years of failed dieting. “I’m a 24-year-old person and I’m living like I’m 70,” she said. “This operation is going to save my life – and this is what I need.” She said she was on anti-depressants and had become increasingly isolated as had weight had increased.

She has become totally reliant on her partner John Lewis for day-to-day care but said she could not stop eating. “It’s like an alcoholic has got an addiction with drink.You can’t control it,” she added.

Professor Baxter of Swansea University, the only surgeon performing bariatric surgery in Wales, argues investing in such operations, which cost up to £10,000, could save the government money in the long run. He said it would allow patients to re-build their lives, return to work and not rely on welfare payments. He said they would also be less likely to develop further health problems.

“I’m terribly frustrated when I see this, particularly in a young patients who’s got a lot to look forward to, if they can get their life back again,” he said. “I think it’s tragic that she’s denied this form of, what I would call, life saving surgery.”

Bariatric surgery is not risk free but 26-year-old Alistair Preston from Nantymoel near Bridgend tells the programme he dropped from 37 stone to 19 stone in the year since he had the operation. “It basically means now that I can only eat smaller amounts of food where I’d been eating as much as I could before.”

Health Commission Wales (HCW) said it was unaware of patients dying waiting for surgery, but it said it did not have the money to meet the cost of rising demand for bariatric surgery. It applies its own eligibility criteria which means that only patients who already have life threatening obesity-related illnesses like heart disease, or diabetes, will get their operations free.

At the moment, Ms Butler does not meet HCW’s exceptional criteria. HCW’s chief executive Simon Dean said the body was responsible for funding all sorts of care including cancer services, bone marrow transplants and heart surgery.

“We have a fixed allocation of resources, we have to live within that allocation,” he said. “We have spent more than we’ve been given in previous years and we’ve quite rightly been criticised for doing so. We have to make some quite difficult choices about which services we can fund and which we have to limit to more exceptional cases.”

Week In Week Out is shown at 22.35 GMT on BBC One Wales on Tuesday 13 February.