Growing the rapid weight loss market

Morbid obesity is now on the rise in India and acquiring proportions of an epidemic. Over 5% of India’s population is obese, an unwelcome side effect of our growing prosperity. This puts a lot of stress on the medical system as well, as morbidly obese individuals are certain to have diabetic, cardiac and orthopedic problems. It’s simple. Multiple layers of fat mean that every single organ in the body functions under unnatural pressure – the heart, kidneys, lungs, and stomach have to work much harder to maintain normal processes.

There is a proven solution – bariatric surgery. The stomach is bypassed altogether, or the intestines are shortened – leading to a feeling of ‘fullness’ by eating very little food. The effect is dramatic. Patients have lost as much as 50-75 kilos within weeks of surgery. The other welcome change is that diabetes and cardiac problems often disappear – if obesity alone is the cause.

Seems like an easy market to crack, doesn’t it? There is a tremendous need, there are multiple benefits right away and the market size is huge. 5% of a population of a billion people is about 50 million people. In truth, the market was going nowhere. Hospitals that were equipped to handle the surgery were waiting for patients to line up. It isn’t easy to convince people to go under the knife even when their lives are at stake. The other issues involved include the need to educate patients about the benefits, the skill of the surgeon and the long-term gains. Even with social awkwardness and all attendant health issues, patients prefer to wait it out and try all kinds of quick-fix solutions that never really work.

But bariatric surgery is in for some dramatic growth. The portly President of the BJP – Nitin Gadkari has just undergone the procedure in a Mumbai hospital. In the next few weeks, if the surgery has gone well and achieves its objectives, he will stride on the national scene with a trimmer profile. It will encourage several party members to follow suit – driving market growth and hospital profits. Bariatric surgery is like cosmetic surgery; in demand from the rich and famous who fill their suits and sarees very generously. Once it gets accepted at that level, a trickle down is inevitable.

Just goes to show that communication works in complex ways. Market growth is determined not by need alone but by the people who popularize it. So while you can get Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to endorse suitings, you won’t find a willing celebrity to extol the virtues of bariatric surgery. Just like you won’t get our best-known actresses to admit that they have ‘corrected’ their noses or breasts or rid themselves of a number of wrinkles. For that, you have to rely on our ageing politicians to oblige when their health deteriorates and the media steps in to educate. Replacement knee surgery in India came of age when the former PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee went through a well-publicised recovery.