Given that nearly 40 percent of Americans are obese, you might think that primary care physicians, the front line of medical care, would be actively engaged to help patients lose weight. Counseling on a healthier lifestyle has long been under the purview of the PCP.
After all, obesity was designated a disease in 2013 by the American Heart Association and American Medical Association. Defined as a body mass index of 30 or higher, obesity had long been identified as a health condition, but its designation as a disease underscored its role as a risk factor for leading causes of death, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and many cancers.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts, further solidified the physician's role in engaging patients in weight loss efforts when it recommended in 2003 and again in 2012 that physicians should screen "all adults for obesity and offer or refer patients with a BMI of 30 kg/m2 to intensive, multicomponent behavioral interventions."
Unfortunately for patients with obesity and our society, primary care physicians (PCP's) have been largely silent in their response to the obesity epidemic.
As a PCP myself, and a health researcher, I've studied how primary care has been engaged in helping our patients lose weight. Unfortunately, we're not doing so great. Losing weight is difficult, and my studies suggest that helping patients lose weight isn't any easier.
One of my studies revealed that only 6 percent of visits include counseling for weight, a decrease from 8 percent of visits during the prior decade.
Rates of counseling for diet and exercise have also decreased, with greater declines seen in patients with the most to benefit from healthy lifestyle change, including those with hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Further, a small minority – 9 percent – of PCPs are performing the majority – at 52 percent – of all reported weight counseling. In addition, most PCPs – 58 percent – failed to perform any weight counseling during patient visits across study years.
There are real reasons PCPs have been less than engaged in counseling patients about weight loss. Physicians are pessimistic that patients can change, physicians have time limitations, and physicians' training and skills for counseling are thought to be inadequate. Until recently, physicians weren't reimbursed for time spent counseling, either.
Also, PCPs often do not have time due to an increasing number of clinical items, including diseases, medications, and tests, addressed during adult primary care visits. Further, doctors don't have the tools.
It's not because doctors aren't capable but rather because few tools exist to help PCPs counsel patients. Weight loss programs within the primary care setting are relatively ineffective. Also, there are only a handful of medications available to PCPs to prescribe, with several withdrawn from the market due to safety concerns. Multiple medications have recently been introduced to help with weight loss, although there is a known delay in prescribing uptake.
Recent policy changes have attempted to overcome at least one barrier: lack of reimbursement for counseling. In 2012, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid implemented coverage for intensive behavioral therapy for obesity by PCPs. Further, the Affordable Care Act expanded this coverage to all adults by requiring health insurance carriers to cover this and other recommendations, at no expense to the patient.
This does not guarantee success, however. In fact, the medical community does not yet have data about whether Medicare and other insurer coverage of the intensive behavioral counseling benefit will actually help patients lose weight and maintain it.
Although the new reimbursement provides a structure and payment code for visit frequency, there remains a need to understand how best to implement such counseling within the primary care setting, even if studies show that counseling is effective. Further, a looming primary care shortage calls to question whether a workforce will even be there to see current patients, much less add up to 20 additional visits for obesity.
But PCPs may be able to help patients address their weight in other ways. A study my colleagues and I conducted of national data found that patients who were overweight and obese were more likely to report successfully losing 5 percent of their body weight in the last year if their doctor had simply told them they were overweight.
Although barriers such as an awkwardness to even discussing a patient's weight in the clinic remain, PCPs may be better equipped to provide this straightforward, yet powerful, information during a clinic visit.
This does not, however, address the need for effective weight loss programs.
Overall, despite the recognition of obesity as a chronic disease, we doctors still don't treat it this way in the clinical setting. If we do help patients with weight loss efforts, we then stand back and watch as they regain weight, and then try to re-engage them in additional weight loss efforts. Of patients who lose even 5 percent of their weight, our work has shown that 2 in 3 will regain weight within one year.
It's important for us PCPs to start thinking about better approaches. We wouldn't treat someone's high blood pressure with a medication for only a year and then scratch our heads as to why their blood pressure is high again two years later.
Weight loss is incredibly difficult. Unlike smokers who can just throw out their cigarettes, people with obesity can't simply throw away all of their food. Patients with obesity need to identify a new relationship with food, and understand how to have a healthful diet, and not just a diet to lose weight.