70% of South Texans Are Obese

Most costly medical condition? Obesity, doctors say

September 25, 2010 9:45 PM

Local physicians say the most costly chronic condition isn’t hypertension or diabetes.

It’s obesity.

Seventy percent of the people who live in the 19-county South Texas region are overweight or obese, a rate four percentage points higher than the state as a whole, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. If current trends continue, 75 percent of Texas adults would be overweight or obese by 2040, costing as much as $39 billion in unnecessary health care costs.

But despite Dr. Benjamin Bujanda’s best efforts to counsel his patients on health complications from being overweight, many are unwilling or unable to change.

“Ultimately, the patient needs to be responsible,” he said, showing a handout he gives to patients that lists 30 complications from obesity, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. “We can provide the education that they need to stay healthy but it all depends on them.”

That’s the crux of preventive care: Physicians can try to educate patients on how to live a healthy lifestyle, but success is determined solely by what the patient does at home.

Still, some suggest that investing in proven programs can pay dividends. A 2008 report by Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit group that focuses on disease prevention, found Texas could save $1 billion annually within five years if it invested $10 per person in community-based programs to increase physical activity, improve nutrition and prevent smoking and tobacco use.

Melissa Nitti, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said obesity is widely recognized as a major driver of health care expenditures.

If providers can prevent and reduce obesity in child patients, they may cut the incidence of adult health conditions that are expensive to treat, such as diabetes, hypertension and adult obesity, she said. A recent study estimated that a 1 percentage point drop in obesity among 12-year-olds would save $260 million in total medical expenditures.

Bujanda, a family practice physician in McAllen, holds free seminars each month where he counsels people on how to prevent and avoid acute and chronic illnesses.

He estimates that 30 to 40 percent of his hospitalized patients could have stayed out of the hospital if they followed advice from his free seminars.

“It would save lives and complications,” Bujanda said. “We’re just treating the ill people.