Healthcare Providers Confront Nation’s Obesity Epidemic

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When looking at the state of healthcare in this country, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve arrived at the point where describing obesity as an epidemic is no longer a gross exaggeration. According to the CDC, obesity rates are at all-time highs in the United States, with 36 percent of adults being obese.

Healthcare providers are now more concerned about obesity and the chronic illnesses caused by it (e.g., heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, etc.) than they are with the problems that result from alcohol and smoking.

As many of you probably know, legislators are limited in what they can do. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently achieved a degree of infamy when he tried to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 fluid ounces. The responses from various quarters either applauded him for his social consciousness or condemned him as a fascist looking to take away freedom.

Wherever you fall in the debate, there’s no denying that Bloomberg’s concerns were with merit.

Because of the food and drinks that Americans consume, obesity is draining our healthcare system to the tune of $147 billion in 2008, according to the CDC. This is happening in a time when we’re trying to reform healthcare and cut back on waste.

In an article by Maureen McKinney and Jessica Zigmond, Modern Healthcare reports, “In the face of uneven legislative progress, many hospitals and health systems are tackling the obesity epidemic head-on, particularly as emerging payment models make them more accountable for controlling costs and improving outcomes.”

The authors note that physicians are no longer content to passively talk to their patients about healthy eating and exercise. They’re instead becoming more hands-on.

For example, children’s health system Nemours in Jacksonville, Fla. (the 34th most obese state, according to Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index) “created a sister program there in an outpatient setting six years ago called Healthy Choices Clinic, which provides dietitians, mental health counselors, nurses, and exercise specialists who can tailor programs that meet the needs of young people struggling with their weight.”

The program has had positive results, and the system recently received a two-year provisional accreditation for physician obesity fellowships from the Academic Pediatric Association, “the first program that centers specifically on pediatric obesity.”

Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in Virginia is owned by the 10-hospital Sentara Healthcare who also owns the Optima Health insurance company. The authors write that Sentara Williamsburg has taken advantage of having Optima in the system “to bolster its population health-management efforts.”

Its sister hospital in Norfolk “has also used the plan to target its own employees who struggle with obesity-related diabetes and other chronic conditions,” using “quarterly appointments with health coaches” and offering “premium-lowering incentives for participation.”

Safety-net hospital Grady Memorial in Atlanta is developing an obesity program in its primary-care clinics that “will encourage diabetics to exercise and monitor their weight and diet. The accountable-care partners are also considering patient incentives for healthy behavior and for adhering to scheduled checkups.”

What is your healthcare organization doing to help curb the nation’s obesity epidemic? What programs and initiatives have you found to be effective? What lessons have you learned in talking with physicians and patients about confronting and fighting obesity?

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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