The medicalization of obesity, bariatric surgery, and population health

Selena E. Ortiz, Ichiro Kawachi, Angie M. Boyce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


This article examines how the medicalization of obesity validates the use of bariatric surgery to treat obesity in the United States and how expansions in access to bariatric surgery normalize surgical procedures as disease treatment and prevention tools. Building on this discussion, the article poses two questions for population health regarding health technology: (1) to what extent does bariatric surgery treat obesity in the United States while diverting attention away from the ultimate drivers of the epidemic and (2) to what extent does bariatric surgery improve outcomes for some groups in the US population while simultaneously generating disparities? We conduct a brief, historical analysis of the American Medical Association’s decision to reclassify obesity as a disease through internal documents, peer-reviewed expert reports, and major media coverage. We use medicalization theory to show how this decision by the American Medical Association channels increased focus on obesity into the realm of medical intervention, particularly bariatric surgery, and use this evidence to review research trends on bariatric surgery. We propose research questions that investigate the population health dimensions of bariatric surgery in the United States and note key areas of future research. Our objective is to generate a discourse that considers bariatric surgery beyond the medical realm to better understand how technological interventions might work collectively with population-level obesity prevention efforts and how, in turn, population health approaches may improve bariatric surgery outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)498-518
Number of pages21
JournalHealth (United Kingdom)
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)


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