Governments must fight obesity with major investment into treatment: experts

In the last 10 years there has been increasing awareness that we truly have an obesity epidemic,” said Sharma, noting the skyrocketing ranks of those who…

Aug. 16, 2007
Provided by: The Canadian Press

HAMILTON -Clinics and hospitals across Canada need a major infusion of money to prepare for the coming impact of an obesity epidemic that could one day outweigh the effects of smoking on the health-care system, experts warned Thursday.

An estimated 11 million Canadians are overweight, and about half a million of them are morbidly obese and in need of treatment, including surgery, said Arya Sharma, scientific director for the Canadian Obesity Network.

Most facilities, however, aren’t equipped to handle them and current funding levels can’t keep pace with a growing backlog of patients – a consequence, perhaps, of negative stereotypes influencing government policy, Sharma said.

“In the last 10 years there has been increasing awareness that we truly have an obesity epidemic,” said Sharma, noting the skyrocketing ranks of those who are 45 to 90 kilograms overweight and that nearly one in four Canadian children is obese.

“There’s still so much stigma and bias and discrimination against people who are labouring with obesity that there is not a lot of (government attention) to this population.”

Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman travelled Thursday to Hamilton to announce $700,000 in funding to help a local hospital treat an additional 500 morbidly obese patients next year.

Hospital officials were grateful for the money, but conceded they and their counterparts across the country are going to need a great deal more help in the coming months and years.

Governments can no longer ignore the issue because it’s clear it’s affecting a large and growing portion of the population, said Murray Martin, president of Hamilton Health Sciences hospital, which received the provincial funding.

“It’s certainly becoming recognized that the impact of obesity on society in time will actually exceed the health-care impact of smoking,” he said.

“And so certainly it’s recognized that significant resources over time are going to be needed to deal with this health issue.”

Smitherman acknowledged his government needs to do more and said substantially more funding will be put into fighting obesity in the coming years.

“In the next several years in Ontario, I would anticipate that these services will grow by something like six, eight or tenfold,” he said, adding that seven hospitals across Ontario currently perform a total of about 400 obesity-related surgeries a year.

“We’re at the beginning of a very, very dramatic expansion of services for obese individuals.”

Sharma spoke positively about Ontario’s new funding but said the money won’t last long.

Surgeries are expensive, but the country’s health facilities also need a major overhaul to widen doorways, corridors and washrooms to accommodate specially designed stretchers, wheelchairs and other equipment, he said.

“It starts from seating and simple things like having a blood-pressure cuff of the right dimension, a scale that will weigh over 500 pounds, and it comes down to architectural structure of the actual buildings.”

Then there’s also the cost of special training and expert staff so patients are treated with the dignity they deserve, he added.

“This is a very sensitive population, they’ve been marginalized forever and you have to provide the kind of medical and psychological care in an environment that really meets their needs,” Sharma said.

“The program is based on the idea that obese patients deserve help for their medical condition just like patients who have any other kind of medical problem.”

Sharma said he hoped Ontario’s announcement Thursday proves to be a signal of more to come across the country, because patients are being forced to turn to commercial weight-loss businesses that have profit – and not a patient’s well-being – in mind.

“Unfortunately the track record for all commercial weight-loss programs in delivering lasting weight loss is pretty negligible, and there’s virtually no scientific evidence to back up the claim that many of the commercial weight-loss centres make.”