Surgery should be an option for obese children: Australian doctor

Obesity in adults will reach 35 per cent by 2025.
Obesity in adults will reach 35 per cent by 2025.  Photo: Penny Bradfield

Brisbane: Children as young as 11 should be considered for weight loss surgery because "conservative" diet and exercise interventions don't work for the severely obese, Australian physicians have been told.

Brisbane-based surgeon Dr George Hopkins says desperate parents are screaming out for the surgical intervention yet the Australian hospital system is "un-equipped" to meet their need.

Speaking at the Australian New Zealand College of Anaesthetist's Annual Scientific Meeting in Brisbane, he implored his colleagues to start a conversation on the controversial issue.

"It's been discussed intermittently in small groups, but we need more than that for hospitals to start saying 'lets set this up'. Logistically our health system as it stands can't deal with this," he said.

One in four Australian children aged 2-17 are now either overweight or obese.

Dr Hopkins has been performing effective sleeve gastrectomies on adolescents for years and says his patients have been getting younger.

One was an 11-year-old boy who weighed about 135 kilograms and refused to go to school because the playground became too difficult for him psychologically.

"It was not worth it, he could learn nothing in the environment that had been created," Dr Hopkins told the meeting. 

"It was literally gut-wrenching."


"The need (for a medical solution) out there is just screaming, it's just a question of getting everybody on board.

"These parents are often desperate. If someone is dragging their kid along to see me because they care, they're prepared to go through all the steps to do it. It's not child abuse, it's anything but."

At the end of the day, however, there must be a consensus on how young is too young because there are risks involved with any surgical procedure, he acknowledged.

Dr Hopkins said "conservative management does not work" and to insist that it does is almost "perverse" because obesity can be the result of a genetic predisposition.

"Obviously prevention is always better than the cure, but we don't stand outside cancer clinics saying, 'if we just could have prevented it','' he said.

Dr Hopkins' comments echo the concerns of childhood obesity expert Professor Louise Baur, of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, who says the Australian health system is failing people who are struggling with obesity. 

Research shows just 1 in 60 overweight or obese children are offered help in weight management from their doctor and "highly effective" bariatric surgery isn't easily accessible to those who need it most, she told the 2017 Royal Australasian College of Physicians Conference.