U.S. obesity epidemic adds to hospital costs, drives equipment market

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The obesity epidemic means that more patients are maxing out equipment meant to safely hold people who weigh less than approximately 250 to 350 pounds. As a result, hospitals are forced to purchase new equipment and furniture to accommodate these patients, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For instance, hospitals are now infusing understated love seats into their waiting areas, so that they can be used by the supersized, or two or three people of normal weight. They are buying overhead lifts that help nurses move patients who weigh up to 1,000 pounds and switching to stretchers safe for 750 pounds, the Inquirer reported.

The Inquirer also said that hospitals are forced to make many different accommodations, such as:

  • investing in MRI machines large enough to hold patients who weigh 550 pounds;
  • buying portable machines to extricate obese patients from their cars at the emergency department entrance;
  • widening doors and switching from wall-mounted toilets, which support 325 pounds, to sturdier floor-mounted models;
  • buying longer needles, catheters and bigger patient gowns;
  • renting or buying beds, commodes and walkers designed for the morbidly obese; and
  • Two Main Line Health hospitals in Pennsylvania have purchased extra-large hyperbaric chambers to aid wound healing for patients up to 550 pounds.

Stryker, a medical supply manufacturer, estimated the U.S. bariatric market at $100 million a year, with 20 percent annual growth.

Larger patients are also driving changes in medical technology, particularly imaging equipment such as CT scanners and ultrasound, x-ray and MRI machines, according to the Inquirer. In standard machines, several inches of fat can affect a good picture or make it impossible.

“We probably don't make anything that wouldn't be affected in one way or another by this epidemic,” Corey Miller, a GE Healthcare spokesman, told the Inquirer.

Fifteen million Americans are morbidly obese, or at least 100 pounds overweight, according to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery. While the proportion of people who are super obese is still under 1 percent, it increased 75 percent between 2000 and 2005.

These statistics do not bode well for the health of Americans nor the additional costs to hospitals.

The extra steel reinforcement and design changes can add considerably to hospital costs. Bariatric furniture costs 20 to 50 percent more than standard products, Lauren Green-Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Hill-Rom, another medical equipment manufacturer, told the Inquirer. For example, a basic hospital bed might cost $6,000 to $8,000, but the extra-large model costs $10,000 to $12,000.

Hospitals are reporting that insurance companies do not pay more for care given to obese patients.