For the last nine months, 56-year-old Karen* has been plagued by intense but intermittent attacks of pain in the centre of her body, so severe that the first time it happened she thought she was having a heart attack. “On one occasion it went on for more than 10 hours,” she says. “I was exhausted, but in too much pain to sleep, scared to move in case it made it worse, but wanting to move in order to try and find some relief.”
Finally, in early November, after two trips to A&E and numerous tests, she got a confirmed diagnosis: gallstones. But her relief was short-lived. “The GP asked my weight and height, and informed me that, because of my BMI, I couldn’t even be referred to my local hospital for further treatment as the referral wouldn’t be accepted,” she tells i.
The standard treatment for gallstones is gallbladder removal – or cholecystectomy – but Karen was told she couldn’t be put on the waiting list for surgery until after she’d lost weight and her BMI was below 30. Instead, she was advised to manage her symptoms by eating an extremely low-fat diet – which, she adds, did at least help her to lose weight quickly.
“Initially I was scared to eat in case that might cause pain. Going out for coffee or a meal became an ordeal rather than a pleasure,” she says. “When I took my goddaughter into London over Christmas, the only thing I could eat in the café we went to for lunch was the porridge they usually only serve for breakfast.”
Karen has finally been placed on the 16-week waiting list for surgery and should be treated by late May, nearly 14 months after her symptoms first started. But she isn’t the only patient being denied treatment until after she’s lost weight. A 2016 report by the Royal College of Surgeons said that overweight patients were being used as “soft targets” for CCGs looking to cut costs.