Wichita As Americans grow wider and heavier, hospitals and doctors' offices are finding themselves paying for equipment few would have contemplated in decades past.
Sedgwick County's Emergency Medical Service has brought stretchers that can carry up to 500 pounds, compared with the 350 pound-capacity stretchers used until a few years ago.
Wesley Medical Center rents much of the equipment it needs for heavier patients, but has invested in commodes and patient-lifting devices that can bear up to 425 pounds.
And in recent years, Via Christi Regional Medical Center has set commodes on the floors rather than mounting them on walls, bought sturdier chairs for waiting rooms and elsewhere, and it purchased a few beds that can accommodate patients weighing up to 1,000 pounds.
"You don't think about it until you have a patient who needs that accommodation," said Judy Trufant, director of surgical services.
In medical circles, the special stretchers, examining tables, scales and other equipment for severely obese patients is called bariatric equipment. And it carries costs proportional to its size.
At one medical supplier, for example, an extra-wide wheelchair costs almost $500, compared with about $200 for a regular one. A scale in a doctor's office is about $500; one that can handle 600 pounds is $1,750. A blood pressure cuff is $26; one for an obese arm is $15 more.
Many hospitals, doctors' offices and nursing homes have traditionally rented such equipment. But those costs, too, are rising.
When Wichita physician James Early set up the Prevention and Health Center in late 1994, he knew he would need special equipment for the patients he expected to see in the weight-loss program.
Three years later, he had to upgrade his 500-pound-capacity scale to an even more expensive one that could handle up to 800 pounds.
Almost 65 percent of Americans are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty years ago, 15 percent were obese; now, almost 31 percent are.
"That's almost a doubling of obesity, and most of that has occurred in the last 10 years," Early said.
People are considered obese if they have a body mass index of 30 or more. Severely obese means a body mass index of 40 or more. Body mass index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.
The number of patients who weigh more than 500 pounds is growing at an alarming rate, said Early, whose program is at Via Christi's St. Joseph Campus.
"It's becoming incredibly more common," he said.
At least one national rental company specializing in bariatric equipment says it is thriving. SizeWise Rentals Inc., based in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, reports significant business growth in the past six or seven years.