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Top Story of the Week: Lifespan closes popular weight and wellness center, disrupting care of hundreds

UPDATED: Lifespan to close its Centers for Weight & Wellness. Patients react.

May 18, 2022/RINewsToday

This story has been updated, see below

The Center for Weight Loss and Wellness at Lifespan’s Miriam Hospital location is shutting its doors. The program, portions of which are associated with the Optifast product, is honoring contracts as they wind their way down, depending on pre-payment schedules. No new patients are being accepted. Approximately 1,000 patients are associated with the program, according to sources.

The unexplained shutdown of the popular weight loss and wellness program has patients talking to one another, forming private Facebook discussion groups and even a Change.org and petition effort to convince the hospital to keep the program open.

The program has two locations, one in Providence and one in East Greenwich. Both sites are winding down to full closure.

Requests for Information:

Repeated requests for comment to Lifespan’s Miriam Hospital PR contact, Richard Salit, have gone unanswered. A request to Kathleen Hart, Director, of Lifespan Public Relations, has also gone without response.

RINewsToday

Herb Weiss, a writer at RINewsToday has been a program participant for nearly two years. He writes, “It was a shock to get a letter from Lifespan informing me that the Center for Weight Loss and Wellness (CWLW) program was going to be eliminated,” says the Pawtucket resident who enrolled in the program at the end of November 2020. Over 25 years, he had enrolled in this program twice, and had also tried Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, low-carb diets, the Adkins diet, and intermittent fasting.  

Weiss’ primary care physician highly recommended that he seriously consider re-enrolling in the highly regarded CWLW program which not only focused on diet, but also on a behavioral/psychological intervention approach, based on cognitive behavioral therapy. The 68-year old’s obesity had resulted in underlying medical conditions including diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, and high cholesterol.  

“During my recent involvement with CWLW, my goal was to lose 70 pounds,” says Weiss, noting that he has only lost 24 pounds. However, his lab tests revealed a decrease in his AIC from 7.0 to 6.2, and his high blood pressure and cholesterol decreased.  His body mass index also slightly decreased, too.

Weiss put on his reporter’s hat and asked a few questions to some CWLW staffers as to why this highly touted weight loss program was being closed. He learned, informally, that neither the Center’s founder and director, Dr. Vincent Pera, MD, nor senior staff, were consulted by Lifespan management about the closing. “They were literally caught off guard,” Weiss was told, and that money did not play into making this decision, just that the hospital had decided to “go in another direction”.

While Lifespan’s decision impact’s the program’s participants, it also impacts jobs and staff, many who have worked at the program for decades. They will lose their job in the program, be reshuffled to other positions, or be terminated. Sources have said that approximately 19 staff will lose their positions, with a few having already left.  Lifespan appears to be providing outplacement services, such as resume writing and job search tips.

Weiss tried to confirm what he had learned, but “when I called Lifespan to confirm what I was told, nobody called me back,” says Weiss, noting that lack of transparency about the closing is causing rumors to run rampant.

Now CWLW patients are scrambling to find other ways to deal with their emotional eating issues impacting their health, and figuring out ways to get the Optifast products, which are prescription based for those under medical supervision.

Both Lifespan facilities are being closed.

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Notification of Closure mailed to patients

Patients were notified in different tiers, with most receiving letters. “Lifespan’s notification of closure suggested that I call my insurance company for referrals to other programs or to look at other weight loss programs that the hospital offered, such as the bariatric program. “No way will I consider bariatric surgery,” says Weiss, stressing that this was not the replacement option from them, but seemed to be a direction of their program.

Not everyone in the CWLW program was notified about the closure at the same time, says Weiss. “Some people actually found out about this on the program’s website,” he added, noting that the posting revealed that this sudden decision has caused a lot of stress and anger from weight loss patients – not good for patients whose eating patterns can be thrown off by stressful situations. 

Facebook Groups – one censored, one not

CWLW has a private Facebook group page for patients to provide support and conversation with one another in the program, with over 400 members. But, after patients started to vent their disappointment at the center’s closing, and talk with one another about what to do next, the site removed comments and posted a notice for people to stay on topic of weight loss.  The original moderator of the page has been replaced and negative comments are routinely deleted.

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With the “censoring” of conversation on that page, CWLW patients banded together and created a new Facebook group page, “We are all in this together Optifast”, and membership is now at about 108 members. Here is the link to that page, which is also private:

ttps://www.facebook.com/groups/480522003852721/?multi_permalinks=494409265797328%2C494405192464402%2C494391142465807%2C493246839246904¬if_id=1652387809231631¬if_t=group_activity&ref=notif

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Patients take action – letter writing, petitions go unanswered

The CWLW participants have been sending letters to Lifespan Corporate, urging one of the state’s largest healthcare systems to rethink its decision. 

A petition is also being circulated to send to Lifespan Corporate officials and a petition has been started on Change.org (https://www.change.org/p/keep-the-center-for-weight-and-wellness-open):

Weiss believes that Lifespan’s surprise decision to close the CWLW program within months has put CWLW patients at risk as they try to deal with their emotional issues that results in their obesity and the medical complications that result from it.

Patients Speak Out:

From Kate:

“I am a current client and the closure is a big roadblock to the progress that I was making in this program. I was extremely successful with this program for the last 9 months and I was planning on staying active, hopefully, until at least the summer of ’23. That is no longer possible, as they will stop selling the Optifast product this coming November. The options they offer now are sub-par. It is either drastic surgery or a homeopathic approach that seems flighty at best. I loved this program for the support and the medical knowledge involved. Closing this program loses Rhode Island a great program and safe access to a product that works. Thank you.”

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From Harmony:

“I joined in January. After years of struggling with my weight, I was ready for the surgery but my insurance won’t cover it, so this was the next option offered to me. A great success – I’ve lost 40 pounds so far. I looked forward to the year of support so I could reach my goal weight, but now I won’t get that. I had plans and goals surrounding my weight loss and the program is what gives me regular and consistent direction. I found out on Facebook that the center is closing and I’m losing all of that support I was promised. To be blunt, I couldn’t handle it. I don’t know how to continue properly and get to the point of eating normal foods versus drinking protein shakes. I panicked. I am now out of work for a month because I went off the deep end trying to figure out what I am going to do. It may seem a bit extreme, but it’s reality for me. This is where I am with it right now as I wait for more information from the center as far as how to proceed. 

I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m disappointed. I’m hurt. I’m broken, and it really sucks.

I really wish they would keep it open for those of us who really need it.”

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Dr. Vincent Pera, program director responds to request for comment:

When asked for a written comment about the program’s closure, Dr. Pera responded quickly, with this comment – “Please contact Lifespan media and communications for information. – Best, Dr. Pera” 

Vincent Pera Jr., MD – Medical and Program Director, Center for Weight and Wellness

Vincent Pera, MD, is the director of the Center for Weight and Wellness. He helped establish the center more than 30 years ago, then called The Miriam Hospital Weight Management Program. He is a board-certified specialist in bariatric medicine and in his clinical career has treated more than 12,000 patients suffering from obesity and obesity-related medical conditions.

In addition to his clinical work in weight management, Dr. Pera has been involved in numerous research publications and has authored and co-authored research publications and textbook chapters. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Bariatric Medicine, and an assistant professor of medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He has presented on the topic of obesity at regional and national obesity seminars and conferences.

Dr. Pera is a member of the Lifespan Physician Group, Center for Weight and Wellness. He is a graduate of St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada, did his residency at The Miriam Hospital and Fellowship at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Providence.

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Optifast alternatives

Calls and emails to Optifast, Inc. were not returned.  A search for Optifast resources within 200 miles of Providence listed two others.

Their website still lists the two Lifespan facilities for Rhode Island. When asked about plans to offer Optifast at other locations in Rhode Island, a person in their call center said there was a link on their site for programs to apply to be an Optifast location. Their Facebook page has over 28,000 members.

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A search of closest programs showed one in Foxboro, MA called New Horizon (http://newhorizonmed.com/weight-loss/optifast-weight-loss/) and one in the New London, CT area run by Yale New Haven.  Some members of CWLW have received letters welcoming patients to transition to the Foxboro program. The program notes: “New Horizon is one of a few select facilities in the region that offers the OPTIFAST Weight Loss Program in a clinical setting where you are able to receive one-on-one attention with a professional medical staff.  This program is medically supervised and requires regular weekly visits so that you may receive maximum benefit from all aspects of the program. The New Horizon staff closely monitors and assesses your progress with the OPTIFAST Weight Loss Program and ensures that you are moving towards better health and emotional well-being.”

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Lifespan Center for Weight and Wellness Website as of 5/17/2022:

www.lifespan.org/centers-services/center-weight-and-wellness
https://youtube.com/watch?v=H_aLwc8cpWs%3Ffeature%3Doembed

“A commonly taught principle in healthcare, the Hippocratic Oath, taken by doctors promises that they will ‘First, Do No Harm’,” says Weiss. “Sadly, Lifespan’s decision to shut down its CWLW program does not follow this oath of ethics”.

This is a developing story.

UPDATES:

Lifespan responded yesterday to our story about the hospital group’s intent to close the Center for Weight and Wellness with this statement:

Weight Loss Services at Lifespan is shifting from product-based programs and phasing out the Center for Weight and Wellness. Patients currently active in the program will continue with their treatment plan through completion of their agreement, or until the center closes on Nov. 17.

For those patients who want to continue with their weight loss journey, Lifespan offers a number of other weight loss services that includes nutrition guidance, exercise, counseling, and monitoring of medical conditions, as needed. Through our Weight Loss Services and Management program we offer an array of options to help our patients achieve and maintain their weight loss and wellness goals, including ongoing support for long-term success and specialized programs for women, adolescents, and children.  All of our weight loss services treat the whole person, with a focus on overall health and well-being. These include:

  • Lifespan Nutrition Services
  • The Healthy Way intuitive eating program at the Lifespan Lifestyle Medicine Center
  • The Pediatric Nutrition Teaching Center at Hasbro Children’s Hospital
  • Healthy Eating Active Living Through Hasbro (HEALTH). 
  • Center for Bariatric Surgery, which offers surgical alternatives and post-surgical care to manage weight 

We understand that this is difficult news for some patients and we will help transition them to one of these alternative programs if they wish to continue their weight loss journey with us upon completing their current plans.

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NEW: From New Horizon, Foxboro, MA –

“Nestle the makers of Optifast has informed us of Miriam Hospitals closing their weight loss programs. We are an Optifast clinic located in Foxboro, MA approximately 15 minutes from the Rhode Island border and we will welcome with open arms any patients from Miriam Hospital in need of the weight loss program. If you would like to know more about our clinic and what we have to offer, please visit our website at: www.newhorizonmed.com  and view the new patient orientation video on our home page.  We understand the frustration and fear the patients of the Miriam Hospital program must be feeling. We are prepared to meet the needs of those who come to us. 

Sincerely – Debbie Petrone

Clinical Director – New Horizon Medical – 774-215-5579

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More patients respond:

From Marissa –

“I joined CWW for the second time in Fall of 2021. I was completely lost, grieving and self medicating with food. I went for some bariatric surgery consultations and pre req appointments, I was determined to have this recommended Duodenal Switch surgery. I took some time to make sure this is what I wanted and after getting off the high of the surgery idea, fear set in. Am I really going to have surgery? What about long term health? Who’s going to make sure I have my 20+ vitamins when I’m old so I don’t need to be tube fed or worse. What if I have an emergency and there’s no one to explain to medical professionals that my intestines are rerouted? What if I need pain medications or other medications and they go through me too fast to take effect? I thought, why don’t I try Optifast again? I did it 4 yrs ago, had amazing success on full fast and after 2 weeks of modified fast and what I saw as “failing” at the modified fast program, I was too ashamed to talk about it with the program and I immediately started gaining, rather than asking for help and I just stopped attending.I’m not that person anymore.

I will speak up if something isn’t working for me (which is still uncomfortable but I’m forcing myself) and I don’t expect perfection in eating. Sometimes it’s just not the right time to do this program. I needed to do a lot of inner work over the last few years to be where I am in my soul today. I’m so happy that my outside is starting to match my inside. Started Optifast in October 2021 and I’m down over 95 pounds. I am still on modified as I’d like to lose 40 more.

I feel like I found myself again, I feel so much better in my skin, I feel like a real person, I’m not isolating and hiding from the world and I’m enjoying this learning process of taking care of myself, although some days lately it’s more of a struggle. Instead of forcing myself to exercise the way I think I’m “supposed to” and getting a steps tracker which I know would not be good for me mentally, I focused on finding active things that I enjoy, like taking my dog for a long walk or riding my stationary bike in the living room while watching TV. Even though it’s an eye sore, I don’t care, it’s what has worked through this past winter weather. I’m enjoying these activities, I’m not dreading every second and bargaining with myself to just finish. I think that has made all the difference and what will help me keep this off. I have to think to myself, I never ever have to lose this again if I continue with this journey.

When I first heard about CWW closing via the fb group, followed by receiving a letter, I initially felt blindsided and panicked, but then I thought I know what I need to do, I have the tools, I can’t let this derail me. Well, yes, I had those thoughts, but my behavior wasn’t matching up. I gave up for a couple weeks and tried daily, with every bite of “fuck this” food I took, to get back on track but I just didn’t have the strength. I thought, here I go again, I’m a failure, I probably gained 100 pounds in the last 3 weeks because that’s truly how my body felt. During those 3 weeks, I’d throw my hands up and give in to cravings, but through the guilt and feelings of defeat I noticed my thoughts and feelings under that. I don’t like the way my body feels, I don’t feel as energized, I’m isolating, I feel like a sloth and I don’t like it. Was that enough to change? No! 🤣 but I would continue to claw my way through this fog of failing and try to get back on track.

I often think about what a Dietician said during CWW orientation, “obesity is a chronic disease and the sooner you catch yourself slipping, the better it will be.” That was a huge eye opener for me and although I don’t WANT this chronic disease and have trouble accepting that it IS a chronic disease because of how society looks at it, I DO have it and the more I avoid it, the worse it will be. So, I’m on day 4 getting back on track. As you all know, the first few days are a killer and then the little temper tantrum my brain is having calms down and it clicks! I got this. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way at all, and I will only speak for myself and my journey, but learning to feed and care for ourselves in a healthy way needs an incredible amount of gentleness and compassion.

Would we shame a baby for eating too much and not knowing how to properly feed themselves? Absolutely not. I am learning, much like a child, to properly and healthily care for myself, I am not weak, I am fragile and new at this. Food is everywhere, we have to face it all day everyday. Life is going to happen. Things aren’t going to be perfect. Sometimes you just need a break from focusing so much energy on this and that’s ok, especially when a big unexpected blow to your progress hits you like CWW closing. When I was doing full fast and dragging my feet switching to modified, Dr. Argawal told me it’s not going to be perfect, and you can’t be on shakes the rest of your life. It’s about balance. You will learn that things will happen, that you will eat more some days than others, there will be parties, holidays, good and bad days, that you may need to go for an extra walk, but that is life. This is my journey and I have to be kind to myself and watch those brain temper tantrums. 💜

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The RI Department of Health, unaware of this program shutting down, said they will get back to us with a comment.

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Several members of the program may be participating in an interview with Barbara Morse who may be working on a story about the program’s closure.

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