A GP contacted the MDU after a patient requested he carry out post-operative monitoring after having bariatric surgery abroad.
The patient brought a letter with instructions from the surgeon, but the GP explained that they didn't feel they had the expertise to interpret these tests in the context of complex weight loss surgery.
The patient explained that the surgeon had agreed to advise the GP as necessary on any abnormalities, and that if the surgery had occurred on the NHS, the GP would be required to do this monitoring in the long term anyway. The GP asked the MDU for advice on what to do.
Obesity is on the rise and remains a major health and economic concern for the NHS. Given that bariatric surgery is recognised as an appropriate and cost-effective treatment for people with severe and complex obesity, the demand for such procedures is likely to increase in the context of an already stretched health service.
There are strict criteria for those who qualify for these NHS interventions and the cost of private equivalents can range from around £4,000 to £15,000 depending on the procedure. The same procedures overseas are being advertised at around £3,000, which explains why some patients take this option. It does, however, leave UK clinicians in a difficult position when patients return and request monitoring by their NHS GP.
Appropriate follow-up care after bariatric surgery is vital to maximise the chance of a safe and successful outcome.
NICE's 'Obesity: clinical assessment and management. Quality statement 6: Follow-up care after bariatric surgery' recognises these risks and specifies that patients undergoing bariatric surgery should have follow up care within the bariatric surgery for a minimum of two years. This is recommended to be with a dietician or bariatric physician initially, then with a GP working within a locally agreed shared care protocol.
The British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society (BOMSS) also advises the need for specialist follow up by a multidisciplinary team (MDT) for the first two years post-operatively, followed by lifelong monitoring of nutritional status as part of a shared care model in its nutritional guidelines (2021).
The RCGP Nutrition Group has produced 'Ten top tips for the management of patients post bariatric surgery in primary care' to help non-specialist clinicians manage bariatric surgery patients once they have been discharged back to primary care.
The MDU adviser discussed the case with the GP in the context of these guidelines for NHS patients.
They state that patients require specialist bariatric MDT follow up for the first two years post-operatively and that GP follow-up will be within a shared care arrangement. While the patient in question had surgery overseas, the need for support and monitoring remains regardless of where the surgery was done.
The GMC's 'Good medical practice' is also clear that, "You must recognise and work within the limits of your competence."
Although the patient offered assurances that their overseas surgeon is happy to give advice, a UK-based GP would leave themselves open to criticism by relying on advice from a specialist based overseas. As the provider is based in another country, they are not subject to the same regulatory requirements as doctors in the UK and work to different guidelines. There might also be language barriers that would make shared care inappropriate and unsafe.
Taking the above points into account, a GP without the support of a UK-based bariatric specialist could struggle to justify why they took on monitoring for a complex patient if something went wrong.
The MDU adviser suggested the GP liaise with their CCG and bariatric services to see if they would take over the specialist follow-up for this patient, even though the surgery was not performed in their unit. This would mean the GP could access local, specialist advice, such as whether to organise blood tests and advice on any problems encountered in the patient's general care.
Patients entitled to NHS treatment can switch from private treatment to NHS care as long as that treatment is supported by the NHS. However, many patients who opt for surgery abroad do so because they don't meet the criteria for bariatric surgery funded by the NHS, meaning they may not qualify for NHS funded bariatric follow-up care.
It's advisable for GPs in this situation to check what the situation is with their CCG. It would also be appropriate to ask the CCG to confirm their decisions in writing, so that if the patient is advised to self-fund private follow-up, the GP can demonstrate that they did explore the options for NHS care.