Twelve Questions with Weight loss surgeon Dr Richard Babor

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Weight loss surgeon Dr Richard Babor, star of the TV2 show The Big Ward, says tens of thousands of morbidly obese New Zealanders would benefit from bariatric surgery but that’s not a solution to the obesity epidemic.

1 This is the second season of The Big Ward. What was the response like to the first?

The first season was unexpectedly successful, I think because it told interesting human stories. It’s also had real educational value. My job has got easier because pretty much everybody who comes in wanting bariatric surgery has seen the show. In the second season we have a broader cross-section of society to show that obesity affects all socio-economic groups. MP Paula Bennett is the perfect example of someone who is educated, affluent, health literate and highly motivated but can’t regain control of her weight. I see many successful people like her in my private practice one day a week.

2 You were one of only two surgeons doing bariatric surgery when the first season was shot. How many are there now?

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There are five surgeons doing bariatric surgery at Middlemore Hospital now. I do between 80 and 100 weight loss operations a year. I could do twice as many if I didn’t do cancer surgery but that takes priority because it’s time critical and there’s only two of us doing upper gastro-intestinal cancer surgery. I also do on-call acute surgery every second week.

3 Only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of people who would benefit from bariatric surgery will qualify under the public health system. How do you prioritise?

We use a Ministry of Health scoring system which is mandatory for public hospitals in New Zealand. Patients have to have a major obesity-related health problem that has already brought them into contact with the hospital system like diabetes, osteoarthritis, bad sleep apnoea or fatty liver disease. Weight loss surgery is going to save the health system money in these cases because they’re going to…

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