Human Resources News & Insights

AMA says obesity’s a disease: What’ll that mean for HR?

Here’s a thought that should make HR and benefits people shudder a little: The American Medical Association has officially recognized obesity as a disease.   

In a statement, the organization said the AMA “adopted a policy that recognizes obesity as a disease requiring a range of medical interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention” at its annual meeting in Chicago.

“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D., said in the statement. “The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.”

What’s it mean? Here’s Andrew Pollack, writing in the New York Times: To some extent, the question of whether obesity is a disease or not is a semantic one, since there is not even a universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes a disease. And the AMA’s decision has no legal authority.

Still, some doctors and obesity advocates said that having the nation’s largest physician group make the declaration would focus more attention on obesity. And it could help improve reimbursement for obesity drugs, surgery and counseling.

The Times story goes on to summarize the arguments for and against calling obesity a disease:

One reason in favor, it said, was that it would reduce the stigma of obesity that stems from the widespread perception that it’s simply the result of eating too much or exercising too little. Some doctors say that people don’t have full control over their weight.

Supporters of the disease classification also say it fits some medical criteria of a disease, such as impairing body function.

Those arguing against it say that there are no specific symptoms associated with it and that it’s more a risk factor for other conditions than a disease in its own right.

They also say that “medicalizing” obesity by declaring it a disease would define one-third of Americans as being ill and could lead to more reliance on costly drugs and surgery rather than lifestyle changes. Some people might be overtreated because their “body mass index” was above a line designating them as having a disease, even though they were healthy.

We see a few more problems here.

If obesity is a recognized “medical condition,” would that mean obese employees could be eligible for such things as intermittent FMLA leave?

Would formal diet programs have to be included in a company’s no-pay preventive care package?

Only time will tell.

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