Debating the Unknowns in Obesity Surgery for Children – NYTimes.com

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Bariatric surgery – commonly referred to as weight-loss surgery, is apparently on the rise in the pediatric population.  A New York Times article – Debating the Unknowns in Obesity Surgery for Children – NYTimes.com – reports that these surgeries are on the rise in the United States.      

“I honestly believe that in 5 to 10 years you’ll see as many children getting weight-loss procedures as adults,” said Dr. Evan Nadler, co-director of the Obesity Institute at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.

For those who may not be familiar with exactly what a surgeon does to the intestinal tract, there are numerous videos available on the internet that provide a good overview of this surgery – for example, here is an example showing one form of such surgery known as a by-pass.   There are a number of types of bariatric surgery, including two of the most common – Roux-en-Y gastric bypass and gastric banding procedures.

While such surgeries of often medically necessary and truly constitute a life-saving measure for some, they are not just an alternative to diet and exercise – that is, they are not without substantial risks no matter what form of bariatric surgery is being considered.

Here’s a list of just some of the potential complications -depending on the type of surgery – that are recognized risks of this surgery:

  • Bleeding
  • Complications due to anesthesia and medications
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Dehiscence (wound breakdown)
  • Infections
  • Leaks from staple line breakdown
  • Marginal ulcers
  • Pulmonary (lung) problems
  • Spleen injury
  • malabsorption
  • nutritional complications
  • death (reported as less than one percent)

On the other side of the equation, there is no doubt that when indicated, this surgery can certainly provide much needed restoration of health and longevity to these juvenile patients:

Obese children can suffer from a long list of problems better known in adults: insulin resistance, high blood pressure, fatty liver, a thickening of the left side of the heart, and even depression.

So far, the studies have found that the body starts to repair itself as the weight falls. For example, two years after gastric bypass, the left side of the heart has started to return to normal in most adolescents, according to cardiologists at Cincinnati Children’s. Research also suggested that for at least as long as the children have been followed, the procedure appeared safe, and about 85 to 90 percent of adolescents maintained their initial weight loss, Dr.  (Thomas H.)Inge [director of the surgical weight loss program at Cincinnati Children’s] said.

Those on the other side of this significant debate are not so confident in the long-term effects/benefits of having children undergo weight-loss surgery:

Some physicians, including Dr. Edward Livingston, chairman of gastrointestinal and endocrine surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, say advocates could be drawing conclusions too early. No one can say whether the changes will translate into a health advantage later on. Dr. Livingston noted that a third of the children in the Australian gastric-banding study had to go back to the operating room over concerns about the device — and that even the children in the group that did not have surgery showed respectable improvements in blood pressure, insulin resistance and other measures. With or without surgery, he said, “both groups got better.”

The NY Times article reports: “No one knows exactly how many adolescents are turning to surgery to get thinner. One of the few studies, published in 2007, reported that bariatric surgery in teenagers was relatively rare but rising fast: from 2000 to 2003 (the last year examined), the number of operations tripled, to about 800.”

In one article, it is estimated that 220,000 bariatric procedures were performed in 2008 with an estimated increase of approximately 20,000 in 2009.

There is also an ongoing debate as to which form of weight-loss surgery is indicated for adolescents – bypass or banding.

Nor do surgeons agree on which of the two procedures used most — banding or bypass — is more appropriate for youths. Dr. Nadler, of Children’s National Medical Center, prefers banding, saying it is less radical and can be more easily undone if need be. In November, in The Journal of the American College of Surgeons, he described a study finding that among 41 teenagers followed for two years after gastric banding, their excess body weight had dropped by about half, on average, and other measures of their health had improved.

There is no doubt the debates will rage on for years to come.  What is evident, however, to those of us who have litigated many cases involving bariatric surgery performed on adults, is that this is not to be considered a ‘quick fix’ for being overweight.  It is not a form of cosmetic surgery.  This is serious stuff and reasoned considerations must be made: (1) is it medically indicated?; (2) what are the alternatives?; (3) who are the surgeons skilled in these procedures?; (4) is the adolescent properly being screened and counseled before undergoing surgery?; (5) what post-operative follow-up is needed?; (6) is the facility where the procedure is to be performed truly recognized as being capable of dealing with such patients and potential post-operative complications?; and (7) does the child and his/her parent(s) truly understand the risks associated with such procedures? – just to name a few of the many issues that must be addressed.

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