Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Health system “really outrageous” in not supporting accredited weight loss programs and bariatric medicine and surgery – Prof Funder

General practitioners are key drivers in changing community attitudes towards overweight and obesity but they need to be equipped to do that job, the Obesity Summit in Canberra will be told tomorrow.

Chair of Obesity Australia, Professor John Funder, who will open the two-day summit, said today (1pm at University House ANU) a key focus of the summit will be on GPs who have a crucial role to play in stemming the obesity epidemic because people trust them.

Prof Funder said that overweight and obese patients were more likely to take action to lose weight if advised to by their GP. “Many adults do not realise that they are overweight /obese or are aware of the possible increased health risks. Routine screening and advice from their doctor can go a long way towards helping them realise the need to take action.”

Patient advocacy groups will have an important role to play, he said, in conjunction with those amassing the evidence base for change.  The processes - societal and political - to reach a common goal will need to be progressive, each advance building on community endorsement of previous advances.

Over the past three decades in Australia the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased more than three-fold. Australian data indicates a quarter of our adult population is obese, and another 40% overweight. Obesity is a serious, chronic, relapsing disease, with a constellation of associated disorders – diabetes, cardiovascular and renal disease, cancer, sleep apnoea and narcolepsy, depression and reproductive difficulties. These represent a massive cost issue in terms of health and productivity

Prof Funder expects Obesity Australia will engage with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and other stakeholders to develop an information kit, plus a set of guidelines and tools for GPs to assist them in educating, counselling and outlining treatment or referral options for their overweight and obese patients.

He said he was buoyed by the American Heart Association recently partnering with the American College of Cardiology and the Obesity Society in the United States to announce guidelines for primary care doctors to help them address and treat overweight and obesity.

Weight Watchers’ Asia Pacific Program Director, Julie Howden is also addressing the role of GPs in a presentation on Friday “GPs and obesity – a difficult prescription”.
The media too will be a key driver in changing attitudes, Prof Funder said.

OECD’s annual Health at a Glance report issued last week (November 21) recorded Australia at number four among the fattest nations in the world at 28.3%, behind the U.S. (36.5%), Mexico (32.4%) and New Zealand (28.4%). Previously, Australia was ranked fifth. 

Commenting on the report, Prof Funder said: "We have a very good health system - nothing's perfect - and for the extent of overweight and obesity in Australia we're relatively healthy. There's some evidence that the problem in children is plateauing at about 25%, but there’s a lot more work to do in this area. What's really outrageous is that the public heath system, meant to be a safety net for those without health insurance, has failed dismally in terms of supporting accredited weight loss programs and bariatric medicine and surgery. People with chronic, relapsing and severe obesity should not have to wait many years for interventions that are proven not only to work, but also to save money in the short, medium and long term."

This is the second Obesity Summit which has 27 expert speakers who will also work in panel discussions.

One aim of the summit is to construct a 10-year plan to address obesity at a personal and national level. Another is to establish a parliamentary interest group for obesity, as exists for diabetes.

“The GP information platform can be initiated without government intervention but tackling the obesity epidemic needs a co-ordinated federal program,” Prof Funder said.

Data on childhood obesity, treatment, economic costs, bariatric medicine and surgery programs will be examined during Thursday with Friday’s program exploring other solutions and what to do next.

Obesity is a complex issue, with a variety of underlying drivers (genetic, epigenetic, cultural, activity-related, dietary); each of these can be subdivided into many subsidiary drivers - e.g. food which is fast/pre-prepared/energy dense/relatively protein poor/ highly sugared/widely advertised.  All of them are interlocking -- early food choices have epigenetic effects, the culture of cooking is radically changing, two income families are time poor.  

Immediately after last year’s Summit, Obesity Australia published and widely circulated a statement covering areas of consensus reached by those present.  In April, after wide consultation, Obesity Australia launched a five point Action Agenda, keyed to the 2014 budget, as follows:

  • Guidelines for prospective parents over the four years before a child’s third birthday;
  • Expanding the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program in primary schools;
  • Adopting/adapting the Energize Program (food and health literacy) successfully implemented in New Zealand;
  • Appointing an external, independent commission to report on television advertising of energy-dense fast food and sugary drinks; and
  • Supporting chronic, relapsing, severe obesity by means-tested co-payments to accredited programs for clients who maintain their weight loss and the progressive expansion of bariatric medicine and therapeutic surgery provision in the public sphere.

Obesity Australia emphasised that these points represent fewer than 20% of the possible initiatives offered by the consultation process.  They were chosen on the basis of their feasibility, their electoral appeal, and their very modest cost.

Email: [email protected]

Obesity Australia is a not-for-profit health promotion organisation. Obesity Australia Members comprise the Board: John Funder (Executive Chairman), Christine Bennett, Helen Coonan, Christine Faulks, Peter Gluckman and Geoff Walsh, as well as Patrons Paul Zimmet and Harold Mitchell. Obesity Australia has Scientific Advisers including Jennie Brand-Miller, Stephen Colagiuri, Michael Cowley, John Dixon, John Funder, Anna Peeters, Joseph Proietto, Matthew Sabin, Stephen Simpson, and Gary Wittert. The CEO for Obesity Australia is Stella Clark. The mission of Obesity Australia is to drive change in the public perceptions of obesity, its prevention and its treatment. In the wake of the 2012 Summit, Obesity Australia put forward an Action Agenda for the 2014 Budget, focussing on inexpensive, electorally attractive and validated preventative measures, and means-tested, graded support for those with severe, chronic relapsing obesity. The 2013 Summit will review these priorities, and define processes and targets to progressively turn back the tidal wave over the next ten years.

Comment: Prof John Funder 0419 891 451. Issued by Summit PR: Graeme Willingham 0414 499 887. Weight Watchers PR contact: Bronwyn Quinn 0466 911 012.

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Graeme Willingham

P: 0414 499 887


obesity, weight loss, weight watchers, obesity conference




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