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Shifting Beliefs About Obesity

There should not be any misconceptions about how many misconceptions about obesity, its causes, its consequences, and its treatments exist – not just in the general public but also amongst people living with obesity (not to mention health professionals, most of who also have a very limited understanding of this chronic disease). Thus, as we found in our extensive interviews with patients and providers, published in Clinical Obesity, the importance of providing credible evidence and shifting beliefs about obesity is a key step in any obesity consultation. Not only is it important for patients to understand the chronic (life-long) nature of obesity but also the limitations of treatments, which in turn is fundamental to managing expectations. “Frequently, the conversation uncovered areas in patients’understanding of obesity that were misaligned with current medical knowledge. In response, providers assessed and explained drivers of weight gain such as medications, sleepapnea, emotional issues and metabolic processes. Providers coached patients in focusing on functional outcomes instead of weight, adopting realistic expectations for weight loss and maintenance, and choosing sustainable goals. A number of participants shared how lowered weight-loss expectations resulted in both relief but also asense of grief.” Overall, the goal has to be to shift patients (and providers) away from a primarily weight-focussed approach, to a  whole-person approach focussed on health. “The focus on improving whole-person health was crucial as, in many cases, diet and exercise behaviour wasintimately linked to comorbidities, life events, emotional trauma, workplace stress, finances, relationships or loss of meaningful occupation. In addition, it offered renewed motivation and courage for patients who were discouraged by repeated experiences of weight loss and regain.” Overall, the better the patient (and provider) understand the complex psycho-social-biology of obesity and the limitations of current obesity therapies, the better we can manage expectations and focus on whole-person health rather than just massaging numbers on the scale. @DrSharma Edmonton, AB

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Recognising Strengths

The longer I work in our bariatric clinic, the more I am convinced that this is where you will see some of the strongest people alive. Certainly, no one can begin to imagine what it takes to live as a large person in a fat-phobic society, where carrying excess weight is constantly linked to failure, not to mention ridicule, shame, and blame. Add to this, the trials and tribulations that many of my patients have faced (some of which are often directly linked to their weight gain), I often wonder just how much effort it takes to go on day after day, never mind showing up in our clinic. It is therefore absolutely no surprise to me, that our interviews with patients and providers, published in Clinical Obesity, identified the importance of reminding our patients on just how strong they really are. “Patients attributed great importance to the process of recognizing their own strength. Data bears witness to the powerful impact internalized stigma had on peoples’view of self and their ability to be healthy. By listening for examples of resiliency in patients’ past and labelling them as strengths, providers fostered a shift in participants’view of themselves, which improved their confidence in implementing changes.Patients noticed this as an unexpected impact of a conversation about obesity. Many shared that they had expectedadvice on diet and exercise, behaviours they felt they were failing at. Instead, recognizing strengths opened up a space of potential for identifying strategies that people could succeed at, enjoy and find meaningful for their life. This strength-based approach positively impacted participants’ confidence, self-worth and hope.” Indeed, it is not hard to identify strengths in any patient. In fact, I often find myself listening to my patients and silently wondering how they have managed to not be twice their size, given what they have been through. Most patients have heroically mastered other aspect of their lives (e.g. raising four kids as a single parent, surviving an abusive marriage, coming clean from a long-history of substance abuse, etc., etc.). Many have excelled in their professions or serve as important pillars of their communities. Only when it comes to controlling their body weight, they perceive themselves as “failures”. Usually, this perception of failure is based on a flawed understanding of the real biological challenges that patients face in trying to manage their weight. Clearly, identifying and building on inherent strengths, is a far… Read More »

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Making Sense of The Story

When it comes to obesity, every patient has a story. Understanding the “how” and “when” (it began) often provides clues to the “why” and “what”, which are crucial in answering the question of why someone may have obesity. Thus, it is not at all surprising, that a key theme emerging from our analyses of patient and provider interviews published in Clinical Obesity, was the importance of helping patients make sense of their story. “For many, weight gain was linked to crisis events that put strain on coping resources. Sharing their perspective helped people to feel valued and acknowledged. Most importantly, it allowed for collaborative identification of root causes, linkages between life and health, contextual factors and patients’ value goals.” One approach to this that was deemed helpful was to draw a timeline of patient’s weight throughout their life to foster insight into their weight gain story and how they relate to life events. “This visualization of the intersecting patterns of life events and health emerged as an impactful tool and was subsequently adopted as a standard part of the 5AsT approach. Acknowledging the impact of life context on weight in an empathic dialogue helped participants to adopt an attitude of self-acceptance and increased insight into personal drivers of weight gain. Patients consistently asked to take the timeline home and reflected on the insights gained over time.” Indeed, in my own practice, I don’t believe I have ever encountered a patient in whom, at the end of the assessment, I still had no idea why this person may have had obesity. Rather, in the majority of (dare I say all) cases, it sooner or later becomes rather evident why a given patient would have developed obesity. Helping patients understand how seemingly unrelated life events, medical issues, or even their mental health causally relates to their obesity can not only serve as an “eye-opener” but also goes a long way to address shame and (self-) blame. The latter is an absolute pre-requisite to a constructive dialogue about possible treatment and management options. A key learning out my own practice – never make assumptions about the “whys” of someone’s obesity – every patient has their own (often surprising) story. Taking the time to find out and make “sense” of it all is vital to the entire process of obesity management. @DrSharma Edmonton, AB  

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Listening With Compassion

One of the key themes that emerged from our interviews with patients recently published in Clinical Obesity, was the importance of “real” listening and the role of compassion. “People described feeling validated and ‘like a human’. Many reflected in later interviews on how this experience impacted their ability to cope with frustrations while implementing their plan. Patients appreciated that providers repeatedly summarized what they understood and validated their interpretations with them. Patients experienced this as ‘real listening’ that resulted in an accurate understanding of their specific circumstances as basis for appropriate care plans.” In my own practice, I have made it a rule to dictate my notes right in front of the patient. Not only does this allow my patient to correct me if I get a detail wrong, but it also provides direct feedback to my patient that I have indeed heard their story and understand the issues that are important to them. Thus, I see my dictations not just as a means of communicating my assessment and recommendations to their family doctor, but also as an important part of my actual intervention (many patients have told me just how much listening to me dictate and interpret their story has meant to them). Obviously, compassion is a big part of the approach. I have long learnt to keep judgement out of my medical practice. I am not there to judge any of my patients (who am I to judge anyone?). Rather, it is my job to accept them as they are and hopefully help them move things forward to the goals that they find important. This simple “attitude adjustment” (that I made a long time ago), was perhaps the single most important change to my practice. More on the other themes that emerged from our interviews in coming posts. @DrSharms Edmonton, AB

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What Do Patients With Obesity Want From Their HCPs?

Although health care professionals (HCP) are generally not the first people that people living with obesity turn to for help, when they do, the advise they get is not always helpful. This is perhaps because most health care professionals don’t fully understand what exactly patients with obesity do find helpful (no, it is not advice to “eat less and move more”!). Obviously the best way to find out what patients find helpful, is by actually asking them and listening to their answers. This is exactly what we did in a paper by my colleague Thea Luig published in Clinical Obesity which reports on extensive analyses of video recordings of patient-HCP consultation as well as patient interviews and journals. Participants included 20 patients presenting in primary care, who were re-interviewed 2 and 4-8 weeks after the initial consultation. The initial consultation was was guided by the 5As of Obesity Management (Obesity Canada), 5As Team (5AsT) tools, Kushner’s obesity-focused life history, literature on aetiology and management, patient perceptions and provider-patient communication. As readers may be aware, core principles of the 5As approach include framing of obesity as a multifaceted, chronic disease and a focus on improving health rather than just on losing weight. Goals aim at improving function (functional goals) and regaining the ability to do things that are of value and enhance quality of life (value goals). Based on the extensive analyses of hundreds of pages of verbatim transcribed notes, eight important themes emerged (all extensively discussed in the paper): 1) Engendering compassion and ‘real’ listening 2) Making sense of root causes and contextual factors in the patient’s story 3) Recognizing strengths 4) Reframing misconceptions about obesity 5) Co-constructing a new story 6) Orienting actions on value goals 7) Fostering reflection 8) Experimenting and reevaluating The immediate impacts of the 5AsT approach during the consultation led to cognitive and emotional shifts: 1) Sense-making of the linkages between life context, emotions and health 2) Focus on whole person health rather than weight loss 3) Recognition of own strengths in overcoming difficulties 4) Sense of direction for action 5) Self-compassion, self-acceptance, hope and confidence to make changes and improve health. Although limited by the relatively short follow-up period, identifiable reported outcomes were generally positive and covered a range of improvements including activation, establishing healthy sustainable habits, improved function, as well as benefits for perceived mental, physical and social health. I will explore each of the identified themes in upcoming posts – stay tuned. @DrSharma Edmonton, AB

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