Toilets in the Anniston hospital are floor-mounted to handle heavier residents, the beds can support patients hundreds of pounds overweight and the staff is trained to treat the special needs of the obese.
The hospital's efforts earned its bariatric surgery center level-two accreditation recently from the American College of Surgeons. The rating means the hospital can offer weight-loss surgery to more patients while showing it is meeting strict national standards of care for the obese. It also means the hospital is better equipped to combat the state's growing obesity problem.
Bariatric surgery encompasses several types of weight loss surgeries, such as gastric bypass. The surgeries involve shrinking the size of the stomach, allowing patients to feel full by eating less food than they previously did.
The American College of Surgeons is a scientific and educational association of surgeons founded in 1913 to raise the standards of surgical education and practice and to improve the quality of care for patients, according to a press release from the organization. The organization offers several accrediting programs for different surgical fields. Earning the organization's level-two accreditation means Stringfellow has demonstrated it can handle more bariatric cases each year than it did under its previous accreditation from the Surgical Review Corporation, an independent health care quality organization. The Surgical Review Corporation recently stopped accrediting bariatric centers, forcing Stringfellow to raise its standards and earn accreditation from the American College of Surgeons.
"It's a great thing ... I admire them for doing that," Dr. Richard Stahl, director of bariatric surgery at UAB Hospital, said about Stringfellow's accreditation. "In order to get that, you have to show your data and report your outcomes ... that alone is saying, ‘We are confident enough in our care of patients that we are going to let someone else, a third party, look over our data.’”
The efforts to become accredited were not easy, said Dr. Brandon Rogers, director of the Stringfellow bariatric surgery center.
"It involved a multi-faceted approach that involved every area where an obese patient is treated and seen," Rogers said. "We had to put in proper gowns, apparel, tools, hospital beds and lifting equipment — all for the safety of the patient and the staff."
Rogers said a bariatric surgeon from Florida was sent to inspect Stringfellow, adding that the hospital must undergo periodic on-site reviews annually to keep its accreditation. Months of staff training were also required.
"It was a very arduous process," Rogers said.
Dr. Clifford Black, Stringfellow's bariatric surgeon, said the accreditation means improved service for patients.
"We can offer our patient population surgery here ... they don't have to travel great distances and they don't have to go to a big city to stay and recuperate," Black said.
Black said the bariatric center can now accept more patients and he expects its caseload to grow. Typically, the center treats between 80 and 125 patients each year. Black anticipates that rate will grow to between 150 and 200 patients a year. Black added that due to the accreditation, more Medicare patients can get bariatric surgery at the center.
Medicare is a federal insurance program for disabled and those 65 and older.
"You need accreditation before you can add those patients," Black said. "We have at least 60-plus backlogged patients on Medicare alone who've been waiting."
To qualify for bariatric surgery at Stringfellow, patients must be morbidly obese, meaning they are at least 100 pounds over their ideal weight, Black said. Also, patients must have already attempted more conventional treatments, such as dieting and exercise, before their insurers will approve the surgery.
The number of patients who qualify for bariatric surgery has grown in the United States in recent years. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that obesity is a growing epidemic, with more than one-third of American adults being categorized as obese. About 6 percent of adults are morbidly obese.
The situation is even worse for Alabama, which is among the three states with the highest rates of obesity for adults. Obesity can lead to a variety of conditions, from diabetes to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Stahl said bariatric surgery grew alongside the increase in obese patients for years, but that the numbers began to level off around 2009.
"That's probably more due to insurance companies making it fairly difficult to get surgery than there being fewer patients deserving of the surgery," Stahl said.
At current rates, the health care system cannot keep up with the number of patients who qualify for bariatric surgery, Stahl said. Physicians perform about 113,000 bariatric surgeries each year nationwide, he said.
"At that rate, it would take 159 years to operate on all the people who are morbidly obese," Stahl said. "And the obesity problem is not going away."
Black said bariatric surgery has helped many local residents lead more productive lives and the hospital's accredited center will continue to help control the area's obesity problem.
"There is a very large group of citizens in Alabama who meet the criteria for this surgery and we have a responsibility to provide a safe environment and treatment so they can be participators and not spectators," Black said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.