Primary care physician decision making regarding severe obesity treatment and bariatric surgery: A qualitative study

Luke M. Funk, Sally A. Jolles, Caprice C. Greenberg, Margaret L. Schwarze, Nasia Safdar, Megan A. McVay, Jeffrey C. Whittle, Matthew L. MacIejewski, Corrine I. Voils

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Background Less than 1% of severely obese US adults undergo bariatric surgery annually. It is critical to understand the factors that contribute to its utilization. Objectives To understand how primary care physicians (PCPs) make decisions regarding severe obesity treatment and bariatric surgery referral. Setting Focus groups with PCPs practicing in small, medium, and large cities in Wisconsin. Methods PCPs were asked to discuss prioritization of treatment for a severely obese patient with multiple co-morbidities and considerations regarding bariatric surgery referral. Focus group sessions were analyzed by using a directed approach to content analysis. A taxonomy of consensus codes was developed. Code summaries were created and representative quotes identified. Results Sixteen PCPs participated in 3 focus groups. Four treatment prioritization approaches were identified: (1) treat the disease that is easiest to address; (2) treat the disease that is perceived as the most dangerous; (3) let the patient set the agenda; and (4) address obesity first because it is the common denominator underlying other co-morbid conditions. Only the latter approach placed emphasis on obesity treatment. Five factors made PCPs hesitate to refer patients for bariatric surgery: (1) wanting to "do no harm"; (2) questioning the long-term effectiveness of bariatric surgery; (3) limited knowledge about bariatric surgery; (4) not wanting to recommend bariatric surgery too early; and (5) not knowing if insurance would cover bariatric surgery. Conclusion Decision making by PCPs for severely obese patients seems to underprioritize obesity treatment and overestimate bariatric surgery risks. This could be addressed with PCP education and improvements in communication between PCPs and bariatric surgeons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)893-901
Number of pages9
JournalSurgery for Obesity and Related Diseases
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Bariatric surgery
  • Obesity treatment attitudes
  • Primary care physicians

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery


Dive into the research topics of 'Primary care physician decision making regarding severe obesity treatment and bariatric surgery: A qualitative study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this