May 31, 2006 — -- She was once diabetic and asthmatic, but now Louanne Hoffman is healthy and happy -- thanks to obesity surgery.
"I was in a wheelchair ... now I haven't had to use my asthma medicine for six months," said Hoffman, a woman from Virginia who had obesity surgery about 2½ years ago.
There are many people out there with stories similar to Hoffman's. In recent years, obesity surgery has increased by nearly 600 percent, according to a new study from the American Journal of Public Health. The number of patients in the United States receiving gastric bypass surgery increased from about 14,000 in 1998 to more than 82,000 in 2002.
There are several reasons for this increase, such as increased coverage from insurance companies and improved surgical techniques that mean less pain and risk for patients. It also hasn't hurt that various celebrities, including Carnie Wilson and Al Roker, have increased the visibility of obesity surgery in recent years.
"As more and more people -- including celebrities -- have [obesity surgery], it becomes socially acceptable. [Then others can] 'join the club' rather than feeling like social outcasts," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine and an ABC News contributor.
But patients like Hoffman say the main reason they undergo surgery is to find relief from obesity-related health problems. She's now back at work after having been on disability leave.
"My life has really changed, and I am still adapting to it," she said.
Once considered a fairly risky surgery, recent advancements have lowered the complication rate for patients.
These operations use minimally invasive techniques that help prevent complications, such as infections and hernias, from large incisions, and also mean a faster recovery and less pain, said Dr. Bradley Needleman, director of bariatric surgery at Ohio State University.
Along with such new techniques, bariatric surgeons are routinely monitored by hospitals, hospital associations and their adherence to state guidelines.
In Massachusetts, for example, the Betsy Lehman guidelines, developed by an expert panel of professionals at the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction in Boston, ensure the safety of patients undergoing obesity surgery.
Even though these surgeries can benefit the morbidly obese (anyone more than 100 pounds overweight), not everyone can afford the cost of these operations, which is about $30,000, according to Business Week..
But in February, Medicare started to cover obesity surgery, which will likely expand the patient pool even further, and surgeons hope that other insurers follow Medicare's lead.
"Many insurance companies usually follow what Medicare does, so [many doctors] are hoping that other insurance companies will [eventually] follow suit," Needleman said.
Gastric surgery can pose a huge financial burden, especially if those paying the bills are parents, which is often the case now.
"Teenagers are undergoing [obesity] surgery in the early 2000 decade at a frequency that is three times increased compared to the late 1990s," said Dr. Thomas Inge, the surgical director at the Comprehensive Weight Management Center at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Before having surgery, teens must first meet specific guidelines, such as reaching sexual and physical maturity. But the surgery can help obese children suffering from the same obesity-related diseases that afflict overweight adults, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, said Dr. Neil Hutcher, president of the American Society of Bariatric Surgery.
He believes that there is no other effective alternative to morbid obesity.
"I have had patients who legally changed their birthdays to the day they had their surgeries," he said. "These operations were a form of rebirth for them."