How many common bile duct operations have you done lately? How about laparotomies for bleeding duodenal ulcers? How about central venous access catheters? How many procedures that you as a general surgeon may have done a few decades ago are now done primarily by endoscopists, radiologists, or others using minimal access for their procedures?
Now hold that thought, as we turn to the field of bariatric surgery.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, there were approximately 12,000 bariatric operations performed in the United States. From 1998 to 2004, that number increased to almost 136,000 per year (J Am Coll Surg. 2011;213:261-6). What was the reason? While other factors likely had some influence, the overwhelming factor was that laparoscopic bariatric surgery became available. Patients perceived this approach as less invasive. Primary care referring physicians did as well.
The rapid rise in laparoscopy boosted the popularity of bariatric surgery but since that bump, the bariatric surgery numbers have remained flat. Currently, less than 2% of eligible patients who are morbidly obese opt for surgical treatment each year – despite the fact that the safety of bariatric surgery has dramatically improved over the past 15 years. Currently the mortality rate for laparoscopic gastric bypass is at 0.15% (Ann Surg. 2014;259:123-30) and sleeve gastrectomy mortality is lower than that. Only appendectomy has a lower mortality rate among major abdominal operations. Despite the safety record, and despite over a decade of publications demonstrating the effectiveness of bariatric surgery in prolonging life, improving or eliminating comorbid medical problems of obesity, improving the quality of life of patients, and decreasing the cost of their medical care, there still has been no major new shift toward surgery by patients who would benefit from it.
What we are offering is not what these patients want. We as bariatric and metabolic surgeons must face the reality of that fact.
While endoscopic bariatric procedures are not new, their use to date has been limited to modifying existing operations, such as narrowing the anastomosis after gastric bypass for patients who are regaining weight. Such procedures have enjoyed at best mild to moderate short-term success, but poor long-term success.
The performance of a successful endoscopic sleeve gastrectomy, however, is a different issue. The sleeve gastrectomy has rapidly become the most popular bariatric operation. Its successful performance endoscopically (Endoscopy. 2015;47:164-6) should serve notice to bariatric surgeons that the time has come to learn to do endoscopic bariatric surgery. If effective, it almost certainly will be what patients seek in the future.
Societal stigmas, patient expectations, and our culture all drive the perception that obesity is a problem that individuals should be able to solve on their own. It is this firmly entrenched belief that is the foundation of the multi-billion dollar diet products industry. Yet the concept of having surgery to treat severe obesity is one that most severely obese patients do not easily embrace. A first-hand successful experience of a friend or relative is often needed for these individuals to consider a surgical procedure. While most patients with ultrasound-proven gallstones who are symptomatic will be referred to a surgeon by their primary care physician, how often is this true for the patient with a body mass index over 35?
The appeal of endoscopic procedures for patients and referring physicians is, of course, that these procedures are perceived as not really surgery. They are minimally invasive endoscopic procedures. The risk profile is very low. Why not consider it? patients may ask themselves. After all, you are not really having surgery.
Many of my bariatric colleagues will likely disagree with this recommendation to embrace endoscopic procedures. After all, the track record to date of many of these procedures and devices has not been impressive. All devices to date that have involved endoscopic treatment of obesity have either failed and been removed from the market, or are in their infancy still looking to establish efficacy (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016;14:507-15). I have been vocally critical at symposia and national meetings of the concept of using an endoscopic suturing device to narrow the anastomosis of patients with a gastric bypass who are regaining weight. I have argued that the procedure is doomed to long-term minimal success or more likely flat-out failure. However, such a conservative approach that demands proof of long-term efficacy could predictably place us conservative curmudgeons on the sidelines of treating obesity when successful endoscopic procedures are available and become the sought-after option, just as laparoscopy became the sought-after option 17 years ago. How many surgeons offered primarily open bariatric operations after about 2005?