Hospitals are facing additional yearly costs of up to a half million dollars each to address a problem that is growing literally and figuratively: treating or accommodating severely obese patients. Health officials say the costs are likely to continue to increase along with patients' widening waistlines.
A survey released last week by group purchasing giant Novation found that providers are seeing a greater number of severely obese patients-defined as overweight by at least 100 pounds-than ever before. The change in patient population has left hospitals with little choice but to remodel inpatient and outpatient facilities and purchase special equipment such as larger beds, blood pressure cuffs, gowns, wall toilets and wheelchairs to adjust to heavier patients' needs. Providers also are faced with the responsibility of training hospital staff to move and transport obese patients.
More than 80% of the 69 hospitals surveyed by Novation said they have seen more severely overweight patients in their facilities, and 17% reported they are remodeling facilities to accommodate the obese. Some 41% said they changed patient procedures to accommodate an increased number of obese patients and 53% said costs incurred in treating obese patients have raised the cost of care for others.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that care for overweight and obese patients costs an average of 37% more than for others, adding an average of $732 to the annual medical bill of every American. Some 35% of Americans are overweight and 27% are obese, according to the CDC.
The Novation survey found that caring for a seriously obese patient might cost $500 to $10,000 more per hospital visit than care for a patient of average weight. In some cases, the cost can reach $500,000 per year per institution.
"That is a dramatic statistic," said Jody Hatcher, senior vice president of Novation. "It clearly shows that this is a serious challenge, and one that is having an increasing financial impact on healthcare organizations."
At 215-bed Wausau (Wis.) Hospital, Materials Management Director Kent Demien said the hospital has had to purchase longer surgical gloves, needles and syringes to treat larger patients. The hospital has spent more than $200,000 to remodel rooms and install larger toilets. Standard wall-mounted toilets can accommodate patients up to 300 pounds and run $350 apiece, but the hospital is looking to replace them with $750 toilets that support 2,000 pounds.
Novation's Hatcher said obesity has become a worker-safety issue, particularly when it comes to moving or transporting individuals. "If hospitals don't have the right type of equipment, transporting or moving obese patients could lead to injury of hospital personnel," she said.
In Denver, long considered one of the healthiest cities in the nation, specially equipped ambulances designed to transport obese patients are being used for the first time. The nation's largest provider of medical transportation, American Medical Response, is operating so-called bariatric ambulances in the city as well as two other supposedly healthy metropolitan areas, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
"Obesity in Colorado is in the high teens, percentagewise," said Lauren Sides, spokeswoman for American Medical Response, Greenwood Village, Colo. "And the fact that it is one of the thinnest, most fit cities in the country reinforces just how much of a problem this is nationwide. If it's an issue in Denver, Portland and Seattle, then it's an issue across the nation."
The bariatric ambulance debuted in Denver about six months ago. American Medical Response has retrofitted about 10 ambulances with a strengthened, center-mounted cot, a wider opening for the rear doors and a power-winch system to lift and lower stretchers. The retrofits cost $2,500 to $5,000 per ambulance.