Dr. Higa teaches weight-loss surgery internationally

Increasingly, countries with government-run health care or a more socialized medical system are recognizing bariatric surgery is a cost-effective treatment that improves lives and longevity, said Dr. Kelvin Higa, director of Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital’s bariatric program and a frequent lecturer internationally.

“For many countries, bariatric surgery is seen for what it is, the most effective treatment for patients with diseases of morbid obesity,” explained Dr. Higa, a UCSF clinical professor of surgery and past president of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. 

He recently flew to Taiwan to lecture and demonstrate to doctors the latest in weight-loss surgery techniques. And in mid-April, when the Iceland volcano’s eruption grounded airplanes and kept him from a bariatric conference in Switzerland, Dr. Higa lectured remotely via Fresno Heart & Surgical’s teleconference center. On May 21, Dr. Higa is scheduled to lecture from the hospital’s surgical suite while he operates with live video images streaming to surgeons at an international conference in Argentina.

“Many countries find it more cost effective to treat diabetes with surgery,” Dr Higa explained. “Take away all the emotional, pre-conceived ideas and prejudice regarding obesity and what you’re left with is a growing number of patients who do not have access to the most effective treatment for type 2 diabetes – surgery. This has been proven through randomized, controlled studies.”

More and more physicians are making the same assertions about a cure for diabetes. At the recent International Diabetes Surgery Task Force summit in Italy, attendees issued a consensus statement pronouncing bariatric surgery to be a “legitimate approach” for diabetes treatment. Dr. Higa, who participated in this summit, said research supports a much more positive position. “Even the best medical practices cannot match the results we obtain with surgery.”

Dr. Higa was one of a handful of American surgeons invited in spring 2007 to an international conference in Rome to take a closer look at hormonal changes and what’s happening on a cellular level when parts of the intestine are removed.

Obesity and diabetes are worldwide epidemics. Even in Asia and India, where malnutrition was once an issue, obesity is now a bigger health problem. Dr. Higa explained that metabolic issues develop in much lower BMI (body mass index) in Asians than in Americans or Europeans, so surgical treatment is offered to much lighter individuals.

“This underscores the importance of just height and weight ratios in determining eligibility for surgical treatment.  We must also consider ethnic and cultural issues – treat the patient, not just the numbers,” Dr. Higa said.

When possible, Dr. Higa prefers teaching from the operating room as he’s doing surgery. Fresno Heart & Surgical’s two new minimally-invasive surgical suites are set up for exactly that. Each suite features state-of-the-art, high-definition plasma screens and the capability of transmitting live video images worldwide from cameras inside the overhead lights and handheld wands inserted into the body. The technology also allows Fresno Heart & Surgical surgeons to interact with other surgeons and operating rooms, obtaining and providing consultations in real time.

Because of Dr. Higa’s expertise and experience, and the state-of-the-art capabilities of the Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital, Fresno has become known as an important center for the education and training of surgeons throughout the world.

This story was reported by Erin Kennedy. She can be reached at ekennedy@communitymedical.org.