Obesity patients forced to wait up to five years for treatment are having to go to countries like Turkey for care despite ‘horror stories’ involving Irish patients.
Despite 60% of adults now classed as overweight or obese, waiting lists “going back years and years” have built up due to the historic lack of funding, according to the HSE national clinical lead for obesity, Professor Donal O’Shea.
And plans to develop clinics including in Cork have now stalled due to HSE budget constraints and the recruitment freeze.
The scale of the crisis emerged at the Oireachtas health committee where chairperson, Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe described how he tried to get help for a constituent who was told the waiting list was still five years long.
“People are going to Turkey, and we’ve heard the horror stories of these stomach bands and so on. People have actually died on these trips.
“The common agreement was that people are travelling because they couldn’t access services. They’re waiting for years.”
He said his constituent received a letter indicating they were facing a long wait.
When he raised this with their hospital in Loughlinstown “the answers I’m getting for that patient is that it’s still a five-year waiting list” for medical management.
Prof O’Shea warned: “At the moment we are treating all of the diseases obesity causes, but we are not treating obesity.
“If you treat obesity, you prevent those diseases.
“With the funding that was allocated last year, we got rid of our surgical waiting lists in Loughlinstown.
“Our waiting list for medical management remains long because of the backlog.”
The patient letters, like that received by Mr Crowe’s constituent, are for medical management, he said.
“It looks dreadful in isolation. It doesn’t capture the context that progress is being made, more progress than ever before because it’s the first time we got money,” he said.
New HSE plans, published last year, include six obesity units and three surgical units.
However, Prof O’Shea warned a lack of funding for new developments now threatens that progress.
There are several hundred people in the backlog awaiting treatment.
“There will be no further momentum behind that,” he said.
“That leaves a model of care that isn’t functioning or flowing, that’s a model that is not working.”
Susie Birney, advocate with the Irish Coalition for People living with Obesity, echoed his concerns.
She is aware of people facing waiting times to enter the service of “five to six years”.
People are then assessed and advised on whether lifestyle change or surgery is most suitable, she said.
“This is soul-destroying for them, and the service themselves know this isn’t good enough, it’s part of the [HSE plan] to be addressed,” she said.
She advises people to join the waiting list to illustrate the true demand for help.
“Also what worries us is people see that and think ‘what is the point of applying, I may as well go to abroad’.
“They could go for surgery abroad, come home and still have the reasons for obesity not dealt with.
“They still need the multi-disciplinary team’s support after surgery.”
She advises those travelling to inform their GP.
“They should do due diligence about where they are going, and that is not just that you saw somebody on Instagram has been there and did great,” she warned.
She is concerned people think bariatric surgery can address obesity, when this is a “chronic relapsing disease” requiring long-term supports.
It was reported this week one of Turkey’s largest medical tourism agencies has warned Irish patients of a rise in “fake” hospitals and counterfeit websites.