You must lose weight, a doctor told Sarah Bramblette, advising a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet. But Ms. Bramblette had a basic question: How much do I weigh?
The doctor's scale went up to 350 pounds, and she was heavier than that. If she did not know the number, how would she know if the diet was working?
The doctor had no answer. So Ms. Bramblette, 39, who lived in Ohio at the time, resorted to a solution that made her burn with shame. She drove to a nearby junkyard that had a scale that could weigh her. She was 502 pounds.
One in three Americans is obese, a rate that has been steadily growing for more than two decades, but the health care system — in its attitudes, equipment and common practices — is ill prepared, and its practitioners are often unwilling, to treat the rising population of fat patients.
The difficulties range from scales and scanners, like M.R.I.machines that are not built big enough for very heavy people, to surgeons who categorically refuse to give knee or hip replacements to the obese, to drug doses that have not been calibrated for obese patients. The situation is particularly thorny for the more than 15 million Americans who have extreme obesity — a body mass index of 40 or higher — and face a wide range of health concerns.
Part of the problem, both patients and doctors say, is a reluctance to look beyond a fat person's weight. Patty Nece, 58, of Alexandria, Va., went to an orthopedist because her hip was aching. She had lost nearly 70 pounds and, although she still had a way to go, was feeling good about herself. Until she saw the doctor.
"He came to the door of the exam room, and I started to tell him my symptoms," Ms. Nece said. "He said: 'Let me cut to the chase. You need to lose weight.'"
The doctor, she said, never examined her. But he made a diagnosis, "obesity pain," and relayed it to her internist. In fact, she later learned, she had progressive scoliosis, a condition not caused by obesity.
Dr. Louis J. Aronne, an obesity specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine, helped found the American Board of Obesity Medicine to address this sort of issue. The goal is to help doctors learn how to treat obesity and serve as a resource for patients seeking doctors who can look past their weight when they have a medical problem.