WASHINGTON – The national obesity epidemic is not just hard on patients’ hearts — it’s hard on hospitals’ hardware, too.
Hospital officials around Maryland said they have been forced to upgrade equipment to accommodate heavier patients, as the number of overweight people in the state continues to rise.
In Maryland, 58 percent of people were overweight or obese in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to 59 percent nationally.
And the numbers are growing. The number of people who were categorized as obese in Maryland alone rose 62 percent from 1990 to 2002, the CDC said.
“Our standard . . . is to purchase equipment that can accommodate a 450-pound patient,” said Kathy Rogers, a spokeswoman for Western Maryland Health System, which operates Memorial Hospital and Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland.
Many hospitals are renting equipment to meet the demand for the time being. A spokeswoman for Civista Health, a 110-bed hospital in LaPlata, said it rents “a great deal of equipment for obese patients.”
“We typically rent the beds and bedside commodes. This past year our rental cost was $6,784,” said Civista spokeswoman Darlene Fairfax.
But others take the trend in obesity as a given and are including the cost of equipment upgrades in their general overhead expenses, said Neil MacDonald, vice president of operations for Union Memorial, a 327-bed hospital in Baltimore.
“We have had to purchase some new lifts to help people get out of beds,” MacDonald said. “For our operating rooms, we have purchased what are called hover mats, which are air-inflated mats that make it easy to transfer the heavier patient from the operating room table into their bed.”
But MacDonald said outfitting an operation to accommodate obese patients requires an upgrade of everything from the blood-pressure cuffs to the operating tables.
“It’s really everything, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “Most of the furnishings will accommodate someone who weighs up to 350 pounds. Some of these patients may weigh an excess of that — 400, 450, 500 pounds.”
Even the design of the waiting room chairs change, MacDonald said.
“The chairs are actually fabricated wider. Sometimes they don’t have arm rests on them, which make them a little easier for people to sit down on. And they just need to be more steady,” MacDonald said.
Because Maryland’s hospital rate system is regulated, MacDonald said that hospitals have spread that extra cost across all patients: They have to charge the same price for a particular procedure regardless of race, gender or weight.
“Anyone who comes in with a heart attack basically gets charged the same as the other, regardless of their size,” MacDonald said.
Union Memorial has experience dealing with the problem: It recently unveiled a center for bariatric surgery, in which a person’s stomach is stapled to reduce overall food consumption. The hospital has invested $200,000 in equipment, MacDonald said, even though it plans to perform procedures on only two patients a week.
But the problem is not contained to Maryland.
Novation, a group-purchasing organization for hospitals and other health-care institutions, surveyed 69 hospitals across the country in November. Eighty percent of those hospitals reported seeing more obese patients than ever before.
The survey also found that 53 percent of the hospitals said “the cost incurred in treating obese patients increases the cost of health care for other patients.” They reported the financial impact for each has been anywhere from $3,500 to $500,000 a year.
But there’s more to the obesity epidemic than just a demand for heavyweight equipment: A May 2003 study by Health Affairs, an industry publication, said the cost of treating medical conditions that could be attributed to overweight or obese patients totaled $92.6 billion in 2002.
And MacDonald said there is no end in sight.
“As we move forward, as years go by, we’ll probably be purchasing more of the larger-size equipment . . . in response to the growing number of patients that we see that are above the 350-pound weight limit,” he said.
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