Primary Care Physicians’ Perceptions of Bariatric Surgery and Major Barriers to Referral

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Each year from 2011 to 2017, fewer than 1% of eligible Americans underwent bariatric surgery to treat obesity and obesity-related comorbidities. Recent studies have suggested that a lack of knowledge within the primary care specialty about the safety and efficacy of bariatric surgery greatly affects referral. This study aimed to analyze a large cohort of primary care physicians’ (PCPs) clinical perceptions regarding bariatric surgery and to identify major barriers to referral that could inform the implementation of a future educational strategy to address underutilization of bariatric surgery.

Study Design

A prospective anonymous electronic survey was sent to all primary care physicians at a multicenter community-based academic hospital system between March and June of 2018, with 150 respondents, a response rate of 28%. The survey was composed of eleven questions in total, the first eight utilizing a five-point Likert scale, with answers including strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, and strongly agree. The final three questions utilized freeform answers of numbers or text where appropriate.


Between 83 and 88% of PCPs responded favorably, either agree or strongly agree, to questions regarding the utility of bariatric surgery as an efficacious and valuable tool for the treatment of obesity and related comorbidities. PCPs reported an average body mass index (BMI) of 40.4 ± 5.0 kg/m2 at which bariatric surgery is a patient’s best option for weight loss and an average BMI of 38.0 ± 5.6 kg/m2 at which surgery is the best option for management of comorbidities. Eighty-six percent of PCPs agree that having a BMI over 40 kg/m2 is a greater risk to a patient’s long-term health than undergoing bariatric surgery. However, only 46.6% of PCPs claimed any familiarity with the NIH eligibility criteria for bariatric surgery and only 59.5% responded affirmatively that they were comfortable participating in the long-term care of a postoperative bariatric patient. The two highest reported barriers to referral for bariatric surgery together account for 40% of PCPs responses: 21.5% of PCPs report concern regarding surgical complications and/or long-term side effects as the primary barrier for referral, and 18.5% report concern for ineffective weight loss after bariatric surgery as a primary barrier to referral.


Results of this study indicate that despite largely positive attitudes toward the use of bariatric surgery in a patient population with obesity, primary care physicians report significant barriers to confidently referring their own patients. Further, bariatric surgery is overlooked in a large group of patients with BMIs between 35 and 40 kg/m2. Educational strategies to address these barriers should target rates of specific surgical complications and weight loss outcomes.

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Correspondence to Eliza A. Conaty.

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Conaty, E.A., Denham, W., Haggerty, S.P. et al. Primary Care Physicians’ Perceptions of Bariatric Surgery and Major Barriers to Referral. OBES SURG 30, 521–526 (2020) doi:10.1007/s11695-019-04204-9

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  • Bariatric Surgery
  • Referral
  • Primary care physicians
  • Attitudes
  • Education