Report Card

A Failing Grade on Knowledge of Obesity Care

It’s hard to sugarcoat this. New research makes it very clear. Most primary care providers lack an adequate knowledge of obesity care. They simply don’t know basic facts of what works and what doesn’t for treating obesity.

Recently, researchers from the George Washington University checked the knowledge of 1,506 primary care providers. The sample included family practitioners, internists, OB/GYNs, and nurse practitioners. The research carefully evaluated knowledge about evidence-based guidelines – not personal beliefs and attitudes. Its focus was on guidance for behavioral support, diet, exercise, and pharmacotherapy.

Alarmingly Low Levels of Knowledge

For behavioral support to have any effect, patients need to get enough support to make a difference. It requires six months of sessions, at least twice a month. But only 16% of respondents knew this basic fact. And then, only 15% knew the indications for prescribing anti-obesity meds. Roughly a third could correctly identify the guidance for dietary patterns for weight loss. Nearly half (49%) correctly identified recommendations for physical activity correctly.

Overall, only two respondents (0.1%) correctly identified all five guidelines in the research. Reflecting on these results, Obesity Society spokesman Ken Fujioka said:

This paper clearly demonstrates the lack of basic knowledge about obesity in the health care community. Admittedly, we have always known this. But this is clear evidence that we have a major problem because obesity is the most common disease in primary care.

A Path for Progress

Implications of this research fall into two categories. First, and most obvious, is the need for policies to address this knowledge gap. In a commentary published alongside this research, Robert Kushner lays out an array of ongoing work that will improve the situation.

The American Board of Obesity Medicine is certifying a growing workforce of physicians who know how to provide good obesity care. And fortunately, most of these experts are primary care providers. Also, medical education leaders are developing standards for training new providers in basics of obesity care. And then finally, medical licensing boards are moving to incorporate obesity care into their examinations.

But what does all of this mean for patients today? Like it or not, people living with obesity cannot depend upon an average primary care provider to know much about obesity. So patients have to equip themselves with knowledge about their condition. The OAC is a good place to start.

And then, if you want help from a knowledgeable professional, you’ll need to do a little research. Look for a doctor with a board certification in obesity medicine. You can also seek out dietitians and other health professionals who have taken a certification exam in obesity and weight management.

In short, knowledge is power for overcoming obesity. But you can’t count on the knowledge of others. You’ll have to arm yourself.

Click here for the study, here for the commentary, and here for more from George Washington University.

Report Card, photograph © Minh Hoang / flickr

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March 26, 2018