Self-responsibility, rationing and treatment decision making – managing moral narratives alongside fiscal reality in the obesity surgery clinic

Amanda Owen-Smith*, Joanna Coast, Jenny Donovan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
247 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Addressing the prevalence of severe obesity and its concomitant morbidities is widely acknowledged as one of the most pressing global health priorities. Nevertheless, a paucity of effective interventions and universal pressure on health-care budgets means that access to obesity treatments is often limited. Although health-care rationing can be conceived as a socially constructed process, little is known about how decisions emerge within the context of face-to-face doctor–patient interactions. Methods: In this study, we used in-depth interviews and clinic observations to investigate clinicians’ (n = 11) and patients’ (n = 22) experiences of the rationing of obesity surgery and to examine how broader cultural assumptions around personal responsibility for health emerged in the context of clinical interactions. Results: Patients and clinicians worked within similar frameworks when it came to self-responsibility for health and the appropriateness of providing publicly-funded weight loss surgery. Issues around personal accountability dominated consultations, and patients were expected to provide narratives of the development of their obesity and to account for the failure of previous interventions. Clinicians faced the added pressure of having to prioritise a limited number of patients for surgery, which was predominantly managed through mandating pre-referral weight loss targets. Discussion: Although clinicians sought to maintain an empathic attitude towards individual patients, in practice they were conflicted by their responsibility to ration health-care resources and tended to rely on entrenched models of behaviour change to allocate treatment. As a result, the content of consultations was mostly focused on issues of personal responsibility, reflecting wider stigmatized attitudes towards extreme obesity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)606-614
Number of pages9
JournalHealth Expectations
Issue number3
Early online date19 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018


  • individual
  • morbid
  • obesity
  • qualitative
  • rationing
  • responsibility
  • self-responsibility


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