Let’s reframe the conversation about weight

By Learne Durrington, CEO WA Primary Health Alliance

It’s tempting to think that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is just a matter of energy in, energy out, which is perhaps what diet plan and fitness regime marketers would like us to believe.

Rates of overweight and obesity continue to rise in Australia (an increase of 5.5% over ten years), driven by a multitude of factors, including social and environmental, many of which are outside a person’s control.

In the Western Australian context, 67 per cent of adults and 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese. In 2011, it was predicted this would cost the WA health system close to half a billion dollars a year by 2021, if no action was taken.

While obesity is a risk factor for chronic disease, equally many people with a higher body weight may have no health issues and lead active, healthy lifestyles.

Clearly, this complex, multifactorial public health priority requires solutions across systems.

Let’s reframe the conversation

As a society, we need to reframe the conversation on obesity and how to deal with it, moving away from individual blame and stigma to acknowledging a collective responsibility.

Weight stigma has significant mental and physical health impacts on those who experience it and health professionals can play an important role in influencing opinions about obesity.

However, GPs may still be hesitant to broach the topic out of concern, not wanting to offend the patient, or because they are unsure what they can do to help.

It is also worth remembering that the individual has choice, and losing weight may not be their primary goal, rather they may want to develop healthier behaviours so they can have better social connection or improved mental health.

Seeing your GP when you want to talk about healthy behaviours, that may contribute to weight loss, could become as routine as having an infection treated, getting a prescription written or having a blood pressure check. Now that would be a new normal worth having.

We have a plan

Obesity prevention was identified as a priority of the State Government’s Sustainable Health Review, as a result the WA Healthy Weight Action Plan 2019-2024 was developed as a joint initiative of WA Health, WA Primary Health Alliance, and the Health Consumers’ Council WA.

The Plan is the first step of many to create a coordinated approach across health in WA to tackle the complex causes of overweight and obesity and work with our partners to drive long-term change.

Tackling this wicked problem is central to WA Primary Health Alliance’s strategic intent to partner with other organisations to achieve the system change needed to prevent unnecessary hospitalisations and improve health outcomes through appropriate early intervention and treatment in the primary care setting, starting with a person’s GP.

Clearly primary care, with general practice as its cornerstone, needs to, wants to and can play a central role in weight management and so this has been the focus of our efforts in this area.

The GP is often the first port of call for most non-emergency health issues, and for people who are overweight or obese, this may only be addressed when they have a related issue such as chronic pain, a mental health concern, or diabetes.

But there are barriers to taking the next step towards offering patients appropriate support, predominantly the need for specialised training to have conversations about weight and the perceived lack of evidence-based interventions, or knowledge of where to find them.

A healthy weight hub

We thought there might be a common-sense solution and decided to investigate.

The result is an exciting project that aims to reduce those gaps by providing education for general practice, supported by a centralised online hub to house tools and resources.

This project, which is currently under development and will be rolled out in 2021, will enable GPs and practice staff to assist their patients in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight by accessing evidence-based services. In addition, GPs will continue to be supported by our HealthPathways WA information portal in their clinical decision making and care planning.

Combined, we are confident these tools will provide the necessary skills, confidence and resources to tackle this significant health issue.

Following a pilot of the project, we will aim to embed the learnings in general practice, so they become part of routine patient management and, being a sustainable, technology-based resource, means that the hub could eventually be accessible to any general practice in WA.

Please note, both videos below were filmed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic being declared.

WA Healthy Weight Action Plan

Watch a video conversation with Minister for Heath Roger Cook and Health Consumers; Council CEO, Pip Brennan on the Healthy Weight Action Plan.

13 Cancers LiveLighter Campaign

Watch our video on the 13 Cancers Live Lighter campaign, when we talk to Cancer Council WA CEO Ashley Reid about the campaign and our role as the primary care partner to support GPs and other primary health care professionals.