A recent influx of morbidly obese patients to Thompson General Hospital has prompted northern health officials to urgently order special equipment to accommodate people who weigh more than 400 pounds.
The move is another sign the nationwide obesity epidemic is hitting northern Manitoba particularly hard. A recent report shows an alarming 72 per cent of residents are overweight or obese. It predicts northern health providers will see more obese patients needing more medical services in the coming years.
At the end of September, Burntwood Regional Health Authority requested immediate funding from Manitoba Health to purchase hospital equipment for morbidly obese patients.
Marion Ellis, vice-president of acute care, said Thompson's hospital has started to see a handful of patients who weigh more than 400 pounds.
The hospital had no beds or wheelchairs at the time specially designed to accommodate patients of that size, raising concerns obese patients could not get proper care and staff could be at risk of injury. The hospital is a hub for people who live in Thompson and thousands of residents in outlying remote First Nations communities.
After Manitoba Health approved $42,900 in funding, the authority immediately bought a bed with a scale, a special mattress, a trapeze to help lift patients and a wheelchair that can fold out into a stretcher, Ellis said.
"We're starting to see these patients requiring hospitalization," she said. "You need wheelchairs that can support somebody whose weight is in excess of 400 pounds."
Ellis said the bariatric bed was in use last week and health officials expect the need for specialized equipment will continue to increase.
According to statistics included in a 2009 community health assessment report, the proportion of Manitoba residents in the Burntwood and Churchill health regions is increasing, and an alarming 72 per cent were considered overweight or obese in 2008, well above the Manitoba average of 55 per cent.
Bariatrics is the field of medicine devoted to the causes and treatment of obesity. Many Manitoba health-care providers are building up their capacity to care for obese patients.
Earlier this year, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service ordered a bariatric ambulance to help lift morbidly obese patients. Emergency responders get about 125 calls for such patients each year. The new Victoria General Hospital emergency room incorporated a special bariatric washroom and shower to accommodate obese patients.
Ellis said health officials are concerned about increasing rates of obesity in some northern communities and the region plans to focus more on prevention efforts such as better nutrition, physical activity and spiritual and mental health over the next year.
"That's one of the key goals we want to focus on," she said.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper said obesity is a huge concern in northern First Nations, where Type 2 diabetes affects 50 per cent of residents in places such as Island Lake. Harper said a continued effort is needed to encourage residents to participate in exercise programs and traditional hunting and fishing, since the cost of flying fresh food into isolated areas puts it out of reach for many.
Harper said MKO is trying to determine why some communities in northern Manitoba have lower rates of obesity and diabetes than places such as Island Lake. He said the answer could help improve residents' health.
"I went to Gods River and I saw a four-inch by one-inch square (container) of blueberries for $10. That's just totally outrageous," he said. "For $10, you can buy a couple of loaves of bread maybe, a can of Klik, instead of one small little size of blueberries."