Patients dying because of seven-year waiting list for surgery, claims obesity specialist

Some patients who are obese are needlessly dying because they are forced to wait so long for surgery, a leading consultant has warned.

Dr Helen Heneghan, bariatric surgeon in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, said nine patients died over five years while on the waiting list for a gastric bypass operation.

They developed life-threatening complications such as heart disease due to their size, she said.

Patients are waiting up to seven years from the time they are referred to a weight management clinic before getting the surgery.

“It is tragic,” said Dr Heneghan, whose appointment as a full-time bariatric surgeon has brought down the list from around 300. But some 200 are still facing long waits for surgery.

There are 250 waiting in University Hospital Galway in the weight management service run by Dr Francis Finucane, many of them waiting for a first appointment to see a specialist. Dr Heneghan said patients who are first referred can wait three years to be seen. They are then put on a nine-month preparation programme.

The next stage is the surgery list, with a further three-year delay.

“There are some patients we expedite sooner if they are really obese and very ill,” she said. But even there the wait can be a year to two-and-a-half years.

The HSE has not put any funding into the gastric bypass surgery programme in St Vincent’s.

The surgery leaves the top part of the stomach joined to the small intestine, so the patient feels fuller sooner.

Providing patients with the surgery sooner allows for preventable deaths, Dr Heneghan added.

“The surgery has major benefits in health gain. Half of patients with diabetes go into remission and the rest have improvements,” she said.

“Risk of stroke and cancer are reduced. No other treatment achieves that.”

Most people remain obese despite the surgery but they are at a healthier weight and more functional.

A small number regain the weight.

Afterwards, patients eat smaller portions while eating more mindfully and savouring the food.

The clinic is seeing patients who weigh up to 300kg. The majority weigh 150-300kg.

In some cases, those who are less obese have more complications, said Dr Heneghan.

The HSE’s national service plan for 2019 says that it proposes to continue to support bariatric surgery “within existing resources”.

Dublin couple Deirdre and Alan Murphy, who had the surgery privately in the Blackrock clinic, said there was still plenty they can eat but the volume and type has changed.

Both were lucky enough not to have to endure a long waiting list in the public health system.

They qualified for the surgery on their health insurance at the Blackrock clinic, which was carried out by Dr William Robb.

Ms Murphy, who had the surgery in December 2017, has shed 9st 7lb after weighing in at 21st 8lb.

Mr Murphy has lost 11st 7lb after he reached 23st before the surgery. “It has been hugely positive.

“Our only regret is that we did not do it sooner,” they said.

Charlie (5) is now enjoying having active parents who previously felt hampered by their size when doing tasks others take for granted.

“There have been huge health benefits but people often forget about the small things. If you are obese, it’s difficult to get off a crowded train.

“We are going to Disneyland in January and the last time we were there I had to rent a wheelchair for Alan,” said Ms Murphy.

They are both grateful to their surgeon, who listened to their concerns when they decided to take the plunge.

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