Obesity is a large and growing problem in the United States and elsewhere. Data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that 33% Americans are obese. When overweight people are added to the mix, the figure climbs to a staggering 66%! The problem is not likely to go away soon or on its own as the same figures apply to children.
Researchers estimate that weight problems are responsible for over 300,000 deaths annually and account for 12% of healthcare costs or 100 billion–that’s right, $100,000,000,000–in the United States alone. The overweight and obese have higher incidences of arthritis, breast cancer, heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, endometrial cancer, gallbladder disease, hypertension, liver disease, back pain, sleeping problems, and stroke–not to mention the tremendous emotional, relational, and social costs. The data are clear: the overweight are the target of discrimination in education, healthcare, and employment. A study by Brownell and Puhl (2003), for example, found that: (1) a significant percentage of healthcare professionals admit to feeling “repulsed” by obese person, even among those who specialize in bariatric treatment; (2) parents provide less college support to their overweight compared to “thin” children; and (3) 87% of obese individuals reported that weight prevented them from being hired for a job.
Sadly, available evidence indicates that while weight problems are “among the easiest conditions to recognize,” they remain one of the “most difficult to treat.” Weight loss programs abound. When was the last time you watched television and didn’t see an ad for a diet pill, program, or exercise machine? Many work. Few, however, lead to lasting change.
What might help?
More than a decade ago, I met Dr. Paul Faulkner, the founder and then Chief Executive Officer of Resources for Living (RFL), an innovative employee assistance program located in Austin, Texas. I was teaching a week-long course on outcome-informed work at the Cape Cod Institute in Eastham, Massachusetts. Paul had long searched for a way of improving outcomes and service delivery that could simultaneously be used to provide evidence of the value of treatment to purchasers–in the case of RFL, the large, multinational companies that were paying him to manage their employee assistance programs. Thus began a long relationship between me and the management and clinical staff of RFL. I was in Austin, Texas dozens of times providing training and consultation as well as setting up the original ORS/SRS feedback system known as ALERT, which is still in use at the organization today. All of the original reliability, validity, norming, and response trajectories were done together with the crew at RFL.
Along the way, RFL expanded services to disease management, including depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and obesity. The “weight management” program delivered coaching and nutritional consultation via the telephone informed by ongoing measurement of outcomes and the therapeutic alliance using the SRS and ORS. The results are impressive. The study by Ryan Sorrell, a clinician and researcher at RFL, not only found that the program and feedback led to weight loss, but also significant improvements in distress, health eating behaviors (70%), exercise (65%), and presenteeism on the job (64%)–the latter being critical to the employers paying for the service.
Such research adds to the growing body of literature documenting the importance of “practice-based” evidence, making clear that finding the “right” or “evidence-based” approach for obesity (or any problem for that matter) is less important than finding out “what works” for each person in need of help. With challenging, “life-style” problems, this means using ongoing feedback to inform whatever services may be deemed appropriate or necessary. Doing so not only leads to better outcomes, but also provides real-time, real-world evidence of return on investment for those footing the bill.