Top researcher argues most physicians aren't prepared to deal with obesity epidemic

The soaring obesity rates across the globe have been called the most critical challenge to public health of the 21st century. A top university researcher argues that most physicians are not adequately prepared to deal with this obesity epidemic.

In an article published in Canadian Family Physician, University of Alberta researcher Tim Caulfield examines the vital role physicians play in managing and identifying obesity and highlights the obstacles these physicians must overcome when treating obese patients. Caulfield, who is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law at the U of A and professor and research director in public health sciences, is recognized as one of the foremost experts in health law research in Canada.

In North America, physicians have a legal obligation to provide their patients with a reasonable standard of care, says Caulfield. By law, overweight and obese patients are entitled to the same level of care as the general public; however, there are reasons to believe this patient population is not, in some circumstances, receiving optimal care and advice.

Available data indicates that many physicians do not have the skills and knowledge to address obesity. According to Caulfield, this could contribute to substandard care in the way obesity is handled and in the way obese patients are treated.

"Family physicians play a crucial role in identifying and managing obesity," says Caulfield. "As the rates of obesity become more prevalent, we need to recognize and become aware of the issues that can reduce liability and improve the care of these patients."

Caulfield notes that earlier studies have found that most physicians (83 per cent) were less likely to perform physical examinations on reluctant obese patients, and 17 per cent admitted reluctance to perform pelvic exams on obese patients. One study found that one-fourth of physicians think that they are not at all or only slightly competent recommending treatment for obese patients.

As obesity rises, Caulfield notes, so will the number of malpractice suits. "By identifying the legal issues that may come with treating these patients, it will become easier for family physicians to address weight management."

Steps should be taken, according to Caulfield, to ensure family physicians have the skills, tools and resources necessary to satisfy their legal duties and to optimize their role in managing this complex public health concern.

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