Q&A: Should I have bariatric surgery during the pandemic?

By , Bariatric Surgeon at Virtua Health

If you have obesity and qualify for bariatric (weight-loss) surgery, it’s best not to delay this vital procedure. Obesity increases your risk for many serious health problems, including more severe complications from COVID-19.

Although bariatric surgery is not considered an emergency, it really is a life-saving procedure. It enables people to live longer, healthier lives, and to resolve obesity-related medical issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and sleep apnea. It can even cut your cancer risk.

If you’re worried about exposure to the coronavirus in the hospital, the risk is generally very low. At my health system, for example, every patient must quarantine and test negative for COVID-19 before surgery, and bariatric patients stay on COVID-free floors. These are just a few of the precautions we’re taking.

Bariatric surgery is very safe and effective. Today, doctors use minimally invasive techniques that require only tiny incisions to alter the patient's digestive tract. Patients spend just one night in the hospital, and can return to a desk job in one to two weeks. Over the long term, 50% to 70% of patients who undergo bariatric surgery maintain their weight loss in the first five years after the procedure.

You may qualify for bariatric surgery if your BMI (body mass index) is 40 or higher, or if your BMI is at least 35 and you have related health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or coronary artery disease.

Even if you’ve had prior bariatric surgery that was unsuccessful, you may qualify for a revision of your original procedure.

Look for an experienced surgeon who has performed a large number of bariatric surgeries. Make sure your doctor offers all four types of procedures: sleeve gastrectomy, gastric bypass, duodenal switch, and modified duodenal switch. This will ensure that you receive the best procedure for your specific needs. Moreover, if your BMI is 50 or higher, your doctor may recommend two different surgeries performed several months apart. Revisional surgery should also be a part of a complete program.

Of course, there’s more to successful weight-loss surgery than the operation. You will need to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits to lose weight and keep it off.

Therefore, your surgeon should be part of a larger bariatric program that will support you before and after your surgery. The program should provide both pre- and post-operative care, including nutrition consultations with registered dietitians who are experienced working with bariatric patients. It should also offer classes/webinars, behavioral support, and patient support groups.

If you prefer to try a non-surgical option first, consider a medical weight-loss program offered by a bariatric provider. Such programs use a combination of nutrition, exercise, behavioral counseling, and weight-loss medication.

A consultation with a board-certified bariatric surgeon can help you make the best choice for your situation.

This article first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

Updated December 21, 2020

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