Opinion

Caring for People With Obesity, Not Statistics

Here’s some good news: it still looks like the obesity epidemic has leveled off, with little or no increase over the past several years in the percentage of children and adults who are obese or overweight.

This suggests that the strategies implemented over the past decade or more are paying off – sports and physical activity programs for kids and adults, removing sugary soft drinks from school vending machines, and promoting availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Yet, despite those successes, over one-third of adults are overweight or have obesity and more than one in six children and teens are living with obesity. More than one in seven are overweight – not quite classified as having obesity, but still not at a healthy weight. Which is why it’s troubling that an Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey found that nearly half of patients affected by obesity say they have not been advised by a physician about maintaining a healthy weight.

At this point, society must ask why care is proving inadequate and how all parties involved can reverse this trend. Colorful ribbons may get your attention, but the resulting discussion and proposed solutions must be qualitative in nature.

One campaign with such an approach is National Obesity Care Week (NOCW), launched this year with the expressed intent to improve health care professionals’ understanding of obesity and improving their willingness and ability to treat it. The focus is not on the fact that one-third of U.S. adults are living with obesity, but on finding a comprehensive approach to treatment that considers all available evidence-based medical strategies.

The human side of medicine is often the most important component of medical practice. It builds trust and allows people to engage in difficult conversations—especially medical consultations which require all parties to buy into a prescribed approach. Treating patients also requires cultural competence, a skill too infrequently taught in medical school.

Absent a trusted health advisor, many individuals living with obesity avoid the medical establishment all together. They may feel uncomfortable or alienated. Without professional guidance, patients may not understand that modest weight reductions can significantly improve long-term health or that behavior coaching, pharmacotherapy, and surgical procedures are established, effective strategies for many patients.

ACPM and the dozens of leading health care institutions who support the NOCW campaign believe a comprehensive and personalized approach is required in the treatment of obesity. We encourage medical professionals, family members, and friends to examine their personal perspectives and biases related to obesity and take action to ensure our friends receive the care they deserve.

Finding a compassionate physician who is committed to developing an individualized, comprehensive weight-loss plan may be all it takes to change someone’s life. Each of us should ask if we are doing enough, either to help a loved one reach that next step or to foster a supportive health care culture.  Numbers can bring awareness to public health trends like obesity, but we cannot stop there. Improving lives and health outcomes requires understanding and compassionate care for the people behind the statistics.

Dan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.H. is president of the American College of Preventive Medicine, a professional medical society of more than 2,700 members employed in research, academia, government and clinical settings who are dedicated to evidence-based health promotion, disease prevention, and systems-based approaches to improving health and health care.

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