Elderly Couple Distributing Goods to Children in Open Air

With Better Obesity Care, Will People Need Less Healthcare?

The economics of healthcare bedevil us. Spending on it, with occasional interruptions, goes up year after year. Some countries spend less to get more, but the story is universal. The better we get at healing our health problems, the more we seem to spend on healthcare. In the case of obesity care, medical research has lately made great leaps forward in better treatment for this chronic disease. Obesity causes so many other expensive problems that it is perfectly reasonable to hope better obesity care will lead people to need less healthcare for other conditions.

But will it? A new study suggests this might not be the case.

Healthcare Utilization Following Behavioral Obesity Care

In the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Sylvia Sudat and colleagues published quite an interesting study of healthcare utilization after participating in a lifestyle program for weight management. It was an observational study based on electronic health records from a large health system in northern California. So it has all the limitations of observational research. Inferences of causality are not reliable from this sort of research.

But it does offer insights worthy of further evaluation. Notably, Sudat et al found that folks who participated in the lifestyle program utilized more outpatient healthcare services than a matched cohort who did not participate. This was largely true whether or not a patient lost significant weight in the program.

The authors suggest that this might reflect an increased utilization of preventive care that might lead to better health outcomes. Further research, they said, would be necessary to determine if this is really true.

The Economic Value of Healthcare

The authors of this study were looking for “sustained reductions in healthcare utilization” following a lifestyle program for obesity care. But they did not find it.

To us, this is completely unsurprising because spending money on better healthcare services seldom saves money. Instead, if it’s truly better, it delivers better health outcomes. People live healthier lives.

We now know that the big advances in obesity care are yielding therapies that are truly life saving. The SELECT study tells us that semaglutide for obesity in someone with heart disease will reduce the risk that they might die, have a stroke, or a heart attack.

But this doesn’t mean it saves money. It saves life and health.

Click here for the study by Sudat et al. For insight on the observation that providing better medical care does not typically save money, click here.

Elderly Couple Distributing Goods to Children in Open Air, sketch by Carel Fabritius / WikiArt

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November 22, 2023