There has been quite a bit of news recently related to a Los Angeles-area LAP-BAND program and associated deaths suffered by patients as a result of what some are calling the program’s aggressive and deceptive advertising agenda. Though I certainly don’t know every detail about this case, I am concerned that the story may confuse the message that I hope the public gets from it. That message is this: There is a significant distinction between the reputation of a program that offers a procedure and the effectiveness of the procedure itself.

The LAP-BAND is a product that has been on the market for several years. It is approved by the FDA and encourages weight loss through an adjustable band that reduces the amount of food your stomach can hold at one time. Patients often prefer it because it can help them achieve long-term weight loss using a less invasive method than a gastric bypass procedure. As a device, the LAP-BAND is generally safe and effective. Of course, it isn’t without risks. The truth is that no surgical procedure on the planet that is without risks. And depending on the program and surgeon you choose to perform your procedure, sometimes your risks can increase.

I think it’s a widely held misconception that all bariatric surgery programs are created equal. And from a patient’s perspective, I understand. If we (surgeons) all use the same product (the LAP-BAND , for example), then we should all achieve the same results, right? One would hope so. But that isn’t always the case. A surgeon’s expertise and training and a program’s experience in caring for obese patients has a significant impact on outcomes. You see, the LAP-BAND is just a tool. How well the surgeon (and his/her support team) applies the tool can make all the difference. In some cases, that difference can be life or death.

What I hope the public takes away from the latest news is the importance of doing their homework before choosing a surgeon to perform their surgery. Catchy marketing slogans can do a lot to draw a patient in. But learning about the surgeon, his or her outcomes and the program’s reputation are the factors that are most important in deciding which program to ultimately go with. If you or someone you know is considering bariatric surgery, encourage them to ask the tough questions of the programs and surgeons they’re considering. The best answers to those questions are the honest answers. Risks and benefits should be easily and openly discussed. The hard work required of the patient should be highlighted. There are no healthy “get thin quick” realities when it comes to significant and lasting weight loss. Guide your decisions toward programs that let you know this up front. Arming yourself with the right information will help you make the right decisions. A great list of questions to ask of your potential bariatric surgeon can be found here.

Happy studying!