Is Bariatric Surgery Safe? What Is The Death Risk?

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Although weight loss surgery has become very popular in recent years, some people who are good candidates for the surgery fear that they would be risking their lives by undergoing a surgical intervention.  New research suggests there’s less reason to worry than you might think. 

Weight-loss surgery performed at U.S. academic medical centers is safe and associated with a low mortality rate, according to a study conducted by a team of U.S. medical researchers led by Dr. Ninh T. Nguyen of the University of California-Irvine Medical Center.

A Large-Scale Study of the Safety of Weight Loss Surgery

The study used data from hospitals that are part of the University HealthSystem Consortium, a nation-wide organization of U.S. academic medical centers.  The researchers reviewed the records from over 1100 bariatric surgeries performed in 2003 and 2004 at 29 institutions that are part of this national consortium of teaching hospitals. 

The study focused on patients between the ages of 17 and 65 who had BMIs ranging from 35 to 70, and it did not include patients who had already had bariatric surgery in the past.  Most of the surgeries included in the study were gastric bypass operations (91.7%); a smaller number were gastroplasty or lap banding (8.2%); and a tiny fraction were a procedure called BPD or biliopancreatic diversion (0.1%).

The Results:  Bariatric Surgery Is Safe

The results were encouraging for anyone who’s holding out on bariatric surgery out of fear of the procedure:  for the gastric bypasses included in the study—over a thousand of them—the 30-day mortality rate was 0.4%; for the other procedures, that rate was 0%.  Other complications were relatively low, as well:  for gastric bypass, only 6.6% of patients had to return to the hospital within 30 days, while the overall complication rate was 16%.  For the other surgeries, 4.3% of patients were readmitted, and the overall complication rate was only 3.2%. 

By the time this study was conducted, most surgeries were being performed laparoscopically, which means they were less invasive than earlier surgeries.  That may account for the fact that rates of complication and mortality were lower than in earlier studies.

What You Can Learn

If you’re considering weight loss surgery, this study offers a few points of guidance.  First, since the post-operative death rate at these 29 hospitals across the United States was less than 1%, you can use that level as a benchmark in evaluating the success rates of hospitals or surgeons you consult.  If the mortality rate within 30 days after bariatric surgery is greater than 1%, you can probably find better care elsewhere—and there’s no reason not to ask what the mortality rate is.

Second, keep in mind that this study was limited to patients between 35 and 70, so younger or older patients may have different levels of complication.  Also, because the hospitals in the study were academic centers, the authors of the study note that it’s possible that the number of high-risk patients in the study might be lower than in the general population.  If your doctor considers you to be “high-risk,” ask him or her exactly what that means, and remember this study describes the overall safety of bariatric surgery.  Each patient’s circumstances are different.

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