Five years ago during Cleveland Clinic's 2010 Medical Innovation Summit, a panel audience was asked, by a show of hands, if they considered obesity a disease. Only about half the audience raised their hand. The other half raised their hand when asked if obesity was a lifestyle choice.
Keep in mind, this was a well-educated audience comprised of healthcare executives, clinicians, and investors. And yet, only about half of them were willing, at that time, to call obesity a disease. If the same audience was polled on the topic again today, I'd like to think the outcome would be different.
Debating the legitimacy of obesity as a disease does nothing to solve the epidemic. Instead, that kind of thinking only feeds the stigma that keeps people from seeking weight-loss treatment. It's also the kind of thinking that helped stifle innovation in the U.S. obesity market for nearly three decades as companies have struggled to gain regulatory approval and reimbursement for new weight loss technology.
Fortunately, the tide seems to be changing and a plethora of new weight loss devices have been introduced just in the past three months.
Since May, the FDA has approved two different balloon-based weight loss devices (Apollo Endosurgery's Orbera and Reshape Medical's dual balloon system) and a neuromodulation device that blocks signals between the brain and the stomach (the Maestro system from Enteromedics). The agency also cleared a new gastric sleeve product that Medtronic inherited from its Covidien acquisition. Other devices are in the pipeline and could enter the U.S. market next year.
The reality is obesity is both a disease and a lifestyle issue. That's why companies like Apollo and Reshape and several others in the space have built a support program around the therapy to help patients learn how to modify their behavior and, in theory, maintain a healthy weight after the procedure. And it is not a problem that will be solved overnight or even in five years. But with so many new minimally-invasive treatment options finally reaching the U.S. market, and hopefully a reduced stigma about what obesity actually is, I am optimistic that more patients will seek help before they reach the point where an invasive surgery is their only option.