Obesity is the Largest Single Threat to Public Health in United States; Q&A with Bariatric and General Surgeon Dr. Carlos Barba

Bariatric and General Surgeon Dr. Carlos Barba

Dr. Carlos Barba is a bariatric and general surgeon, and a true child of the Western Hemisphere. Originally from the Central American peninsula nation of Panama, he sought his post-secondary education first in Canada at the University of Montreal, and then in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania. Carlos Barba then finished his medical training by completing a fellowship in trauma and critical care, thus realizing his long-held dream of becoming a doctor. Soon thereafter, Dr. Barba moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he began performing bariatric surgery because of the high demand in the area, coupled with the lack of local qualified surgeons trained in that specialty. He quickly became a member of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgeons (ASMBS), and was heavily involved in founding the state of Connecticut’s first ASMBS Center of Excellence in 2005. 

In 2013, Dr. Carlos Barba relocated to Texas, helping to found the first ASMBS Center of Excellence in the Rio Grande Valley in Cameron Country. To merit this classification, both the presiding surgeon and the medical center itself have to meet the highest standards for patient care. These days, Dr. Carlos Barba divides his time between bariatric surgery and general surgery, spending about half his work week performing each. He now operates medical practices in the towns of Brownsville and Harlingen, Texas, and at this point in his career, has performed over 7000 surgical weight loss procedures.

Can you explain why you pursued medicine in the first place, and how you went about it?

From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a force for good in the world. I think my upbringing is largely responsible for that desire. My parents were goodhearted and charitable people who raised me well and taught me not to be selfish. Also, I think  the time I spent in church had a big impact. I remember thinking long and hard about how best to spend this glorious gift of life that I have been given. Anyhow, by the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew I wanted to become a doctor. I thought that pursuing medicine as a vocation would be the best way to give back. As to how I went about it, I recall that high school biology class in particular piqued my interest, but truthfully, I fell in love with all the sciences. After looking into the requirements for some pre-med programs, I found that—aside from biology, of course—successful applicants had to show proficiency in chemistry, physics, and various types of math. So, I set to work applying myself in those areas. In short, I made sure my grades met the established criteria, lined up some references, and got accepted to college. From there, it was a matter of absorbing the material, applying the knowledge, and meeting the challenges posed by the curriculum. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had a very wise and helpful mentor, as well.

Why bariatric surgery in particular?

There is an obesity problem in the United States. It could be argued that, maybe aside from poverty, it is the largest single threat to public health—even including the COVID-19 pandemic! The statistics show that something close 75% of the people that die from COVID in this country are medically obese. That’s an astounding fact, and one that isn’t addressed by the medical community nearly enough, if you ask me. Of course, COVID wasn’t around decades ago when I chose my medical focus, but it was easy to see that the country was trending in a very troubling direction. Diabetes rates were skyrocketing, and still are. Cases of hypertension and coronary heart disease were up across the board, too, and continue to rise. To be quite honest, I chose bariatric surgery because I wanted to add years—possibly decades—to the lives of people who are carrying a lot of extra weight, but are, medically-speaking, otherwise fine. Perhaps if I had attended medical school in the 1950s or 1960s, I would have chosen to focus on the lungs and the pulmonary system, because, back then, smoking tobacco was the main public health scourge. But these days, it’s obesity. That’s why I chose bariatric surgery.

You relocated from Connecticut to Texas in 2013. Can you tell us why you made that decision?

There were a couple of factors at play in that decision. First, the area I settled in—Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley—was underserved when it came to bariatric surgery. There was a need, there was a market, and there was room. Beyond that, by the time 2013 had rolled around, I had spent many, many years in areas such as Quebec, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. I’m originally from Panama. Some part of me wanted to reconnect with a culture that more closely resembled my own, and the Southeastern part of Texas fit the bill. It’s a beautiful area full of wonderful people. I’m very glad I chose to put down roots here.

In addition to being a surgeon, you also operate two thriving practices, which makes you a successful entrepreneur. Can you tell us about some challenges you’ve faced in that respect?

There are many challenges I’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and I must say, they are significantly different from the challenges I’ve faced as a surgeon. There is a radically different skill set required to navigate the many different aspects of running a business than there is to perform surgery. And I went to school for medicine, of course, not business, meaning I had to learn quite a few things as I went along. Aside from basics like accounting, maintaining a proper file system, and obtaining the real estate for my two practices, I will say that the one really critical thing I had to learn on the fly was how to hire staff. It’s no secret that every surgeon has to surround themselves with a competent and compassionate team. But, initially, I was at something of a loss for how to do that. Luckily, they seemed to find me. Almost immediately after I began to advertise for open positions, some of the best candidates a doctor could ever hope for just presented themselves. Now, I may not know a whole lot about business, but I’m no dummy! When the perfect applicant shows up for a job interview, you hire them! And you do everything in your power to retain them for as long as possible. My medical staff and administrative assistants are incredible. I don’t know what I would do without them. 

Do you have any regrets about pursuing medicine as a career?

None whatsoever. Medicine is my calling. God willing, I will be able to practice it and help people in need until I can no longer properly hold a scalpel. Even then, I believe I can still be of service to the community through mentoring young doctors, or perhaps by working part-time at a clinic. As long as I am of sound mind and reasonably sound body, I don’t plan to stop.

If you had to sum yourself up in one sentence, what would it be?

I am a family man, a man of God, and a man of medicine who feels an overwhelming compulsion to contribute to the betterment of the world in whatever small way I can.

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