The number of people who undergo bariatric surgery has steadily increased over the past seven years. According to data provided by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), there were 228,000 bariatric surgeries performed in 2017 - an increase of nearly 50% since 2011. But while the number of patients seeking bariatric surgery is on the rise, the surgery is still relatively rare. This can create a sense of isolation for patients who undergo the surgery, which ultimately may hinder their ability to follow through with treatment recommendations.
By joining a bariatric support group, patients receive the encouragement and reinforcement they often need to stick to their treatment goals. This support is provided by people who are grappling with the same unique challenges facing people who pursue bariatric surgery. Below is a look at what transpires during a typical bariatric support group meeting and the top five ways a support group can help patients remain focused on their treatment goals.
What occurs during a bariatric support group meeting?
The cornerstone of a successful bariatric support group meeting is engaged participants who feel comfortable sharing stories about their challenges and treatment victories. While there will be some variance in the composition and nature of meetings, most support group meetings feature the following:
- Duration: Meetings typically last between an hour to an hour and a half.
- Location: Many facilities hold their group sessions in a meeting room within the hospital or surgery center where treatment is provided.
- Participants: Group size can vary, but can range from under ten to twenty participants. Family members may also be invited to attend.
- Structure: Meetings are usually facilitated by a trained clinician who presents surgery-related topics and encourages feedback and discussion.
- Sharing: Participants are encouraged to discuss their struggles and victories with each other to foster motivation and elicit encouragement.
How frequently are group meetings held?
The frequency with which support group meetings are held often varies from one treatment provider to the next. However, most facilities hold meetings on a monthly or weekly basis. Meetings are often held in the evenings in order to avoid potential conflict with employment responsibilities. Top bariatric surgery providers prepare meeting schedules well in advance and distribute a copy of meeting dates and times to each patient to encourage participation in meetings.
What are the benefits of a bariatric support group?
"For many people, a health-related support group may fill a gap between medical treatment and the need for emotional support. A person's relationship with a doctor or other medical personnel may not provide adequate emotional support, and a person's family and friends may not understand the impact of a disease or treatment."
- Mayo Clinic Staff
Having a support system in place when embarking on the path to weight loss is invaluable to patients who are facing the prospect of weight loss surgery. A bariatric support group often serves as the primary support system for patients whose friends or family have difficulty understanding obesity or weight loss surgery. In addition to providing patients with a strong supportive foundation, participation in a support group helps members achieve the following:
1) Recognize that they are not the only ones grappling with obesity
The path to successful weight loss can be a desolate one for people who feel like they are alone on their journey. By joining a bariatric support group, members often take comfort in seeing that there are other people who face the same struggles.
2) Discuss treatment challenges in a safe environment
Many people who participate in bariatric support groups are accustomed to being ostracized or criticized by co-workers, strangers, and even members of their own families. Support groups provide a safe haven within which participants can openly share their insecurities and personal stories without fear of retribution.
3) Form meaningful relationships with group members
Patients who participate in a support group often form strong bonds due to their shared experiences related to their battle with obesity. In some cases, these relationships continue after participants cease participation in the support group. Participants also gain confidence and improve their relationship-building skills through their group interactions.
4) Learn how to make healthful lifestyle changes
Bariatric support groups feature educational discussions that can help patients plan better meals, improve their food choices, and adjust their habits to help reach their weight loss goals. For instance, members may share tips regarding vitamins, exercise, or fluid intake. In many cases, group discussions cover topics that are not always referenced in books or treatment manuals.
5) Maintain a strong focus on weight loss goals
Without the encouragement of a support system, it can be easy for a person to lose their focus on their weight loss goals. Registered Dietician, Sarah Muntel notes that, "Studies show those who attend groups on a regular basis have a better weight-loss" than those who choose not to attend a support group. She states that support groups can be particularly helpful to people who have lost their focus on their weight loss progress due to demands from work and family:
"Support group is a time during the week that you think about your surgery and your progress. Life is busy and people get overwhelmed with work, kids and other commitments. Sometimes your surgery and your program take a backseat. When your surgery takes a backseat, your program can slip. Coming to support group can give you a shot in the arm and you will become refocused."
- Sarah Muntel, RD, Support Group Leader
What should you do if you are considering bariatric surgery?
Clearly, a support group can play an instrumental role in a patient's experience with bariatric surgery. If you are considering weight loss surgery, the single best step you can take is to schedule a consultation at a trusted bariatric surgery center. During your consultation, you can find out how weight loss surgery can transform your life and the important role a support group can play in a successful treatment outcome.