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Obese smokers denied surgery

The Royal College of Surgeons found a third of local NHS health bosses put restrictions on surgery for smokers and the obese.

The Royal College of Surgeons found a third of local NHS health bosses put restrictions on surgery for smokers and the obeseThe Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has been increasingly alarmed about the rationing of surgery in the NHS in the tough financial climate. However, some local NHS groups criticised in the report say their polices are based on good evidence.

Its report is based on freedom of information returns from nearly all of the 209 clinical commissioning groups in England and all seven health boards in Wales.

While some CCGs have voluntary policies in place, where patients are encouraged to stop smoking or lose weight, others have introduced mandatory policies, which means patients have to meet fixed criteria before surgery.

The college says mandatory policies are “a cause for concern” and it fears patients with a high body mass index (BMI) or who smoke are becoming “soft targets” for NHS savings.

The report reveals 31% of CCGs and one health board in Wales have at least one policy requiring people to lose weight or stop smoking before they can be referred for routine surgery.

The report suggests one in five CCGs has mandatory policies on BMI levels before hip and knee replacement surgery, while 4% have mandatory policies on getting patients to stop smoking before hip and knee replacement surgery.

Of the CCGs that responded, 22% reported having at least one “voluntary” policy in place.

The Royal College of Surgeons said any blanket ban on surgery based on a patient’s weight or whether they smoked was wrong and not supported by national guidance.

Instead, president RCS Clare Marx said, patients should be encouraged to sign up to programmes to help them stop smoking and manage their weight while awaiting surgery.

“NHS surgical treatment should be based on clinical guidance and patients should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

“In some instances, a patient might need surgery in order to help them to do exercise and lose weight. While it is difficult to categorically prove such policies are aimed at saving money, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that many financially challenged CCGs are restricting access to surgery.”

She added National Institute for Curbing Expenditure (NICE) guidance did not support these mandatory bans for routine surgery.

British Orthopaedic Association president Tim Wilton said there was no clinical or financial justification for refusing to fund hip or knee replacements.

“Good outcomes can be achieved for patients regardless of whether they smoke or are obese, even at BMIs of over 50, and these surgeries are highly cost effective, typically delivering sustained pain relief for a cost that equates to just £7.50 a week,” he said.

“Hard and fast rules also undermine the NHS’s ability to involve patients in decisions about their own care, and are a distraction from the task at hand: making sure patients receive the best possible advice and care, to enable them to make the best possible decisions for their health – including losing weight and stopping smoking where appropriate.”

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