As Qatar contends with a growing obesity problem, thousands of residents here are turning to radical weight loss surgeries for help.
The demand is so high that some 2,000 people in Qatar had bariatric surgery last year, while 3,000 more were waitlisted for the procedure.
Some of those on the waitlist, tired of waiting for the state-subsidized surgery, opted to go overseas for treatment, a decision that healthcare officials are now saying could be dangerous.
Recently, three Qatar residents who traveled abroad for weight loss surgeries suffered complications and died, a Hamad Medical Corp. (HMC) bariatric surgeon said during a press conference yesterday. And some 19 others have suffered complications in the past six months.
Dr. Jamal Rashid al-Khanji, director of healthcare quality and patient safety at the Supreme Council of Health (SCH), warned residents of the risks of having weight loss surgery abroad, saying unqualified surgeons and unsterilized equipment often lead to serious issues.
Quoted in Gulf Times, he said:
“This may be the tip of the iceberg, as these are cases reported to HMC and there might be many other cases which are not reported at all.”
In response to growing safety concerns and demand, Qatar has become the first country in the region to cover bariatric surgery under its national health insurance scheme (Seha).
Al Khanji said a small number of private hospitals would accept Seha insurance to cover the cost of the surgery – which is upwards of QR50,000. But he did not disclose the names of these hospitals, and Seha has yet to update its website with the new information.
In the past, bariatric surgeries were conducted at the public Hamad and Al Wakrah hospitals and covered by the government for Qatari residents.
Seha, Qatar’s universal healthcare system, currently provides Qatari nationals with free healthcare, paid for by the government. It is being rolled out in stages, with employers expected to cover insurance payments for expats by 2015.
Qatar’s overweight population
The uptake of bariatric surgery is particularly high for Qatar’s small population of just 2.2 million, when compared to countries like Japan where 200 such surgical operations are performed each year from a population of 127 million, said Mohamed Al Kuwari, bariatric surgery consultant at HMC.
According to Dr. Moataz Bashah, acting chief of the bariatric department at HMC, Qatar’s youngest patient for bariatric surgery was a 13-year-old boy. Another patient who underwent the procedure weighed 630kg.
Around 70 percent of those undergoing bariatric surgery in Qatar are women, particularly of concern for the small local population because obesity can have an adverse affect on women’s ability to conceive.
Qatar is one of the fattest nations in the world, with 76 percent of its adult men and 79 percent of its adult women clinically overweight or obese, according to findings of a recent survey published by medical journal The Lancet.
A body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more is considered overweight, while those with a BMI of 30 or more are obese.
Weight loss surgery options
In a bid to tackle their weight problem, many people in Qatar opt for to have surgery to limit their intake of food.
There are a number of methods of doing this. The most common ways are to have a gastric band fitted, which creates a smaller stomach pouch so a patient will feel full after eating just a small amount of food.
Gastric sleeve is one of the more recent versions of the surgery, and is recommended for people who are very overweight, with a BMI of 50 or more. It involves the stomach being stapled stomach laparoscopically, to create a smaller cavity, with the excess stomach removed.
This procedure accounts for about 70 percent of Qatar’s bariatric surgery operations.
In addition to obesity problems, Qatar has a high incidence of diabetes, with nearly a quarter of the population affected by the disease.
Gastric bypass is often used on patients with Type 2 diabetes, and reduces the amount of food a patient can eat by creating just a small opening between the stomach pouch and the small intestine. Around 30 percent of patients in Qatar undergoing weight loss surgery have this procedure.
HMC was the first hospital in the Middle East to recently use a new type of laparoscopic gastric bypass adjustment surgery to help extremely obese patients lose weight.