Health professionals urged not to wait to have conversations about weight as new research reveals Australians' concerns

16/02/2022

Cancer Council Victoria’s LiveLighter program is urging health professionals not to delay weight-centric conversations with their patients, as new data reveals that almost one-third of Australians that are above a healthy weight want to speak to a health professional about it.

The annual Shape of Australia survey also found that almost three-quarters of Australians have concerns about their weight, while just under half of adults reported currently trying to lose weight.

Rates of overweight and obesity are continuing to climb in Australia, with two-thirds of Australian adults considered above a healthy weight.

LiveLighter Campaign Manager and Dietitian, Alison McAleese, says that the survey was a good indicator to health professionals that patients wanted to be informed of steps they could take to help manage their weight.

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some factors contributing to rates of weight gain in Australia, with two in five Australians reporting snacking more and one in three eating more fast food and doing less physical activity since February 2020.

“With obesity identified as a risk factor for severe disease and increased mortality for COVID-19, it’s now become more important than ever that people are informed on the risks of being above a healthy weight and are feeling supported to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle,” Ms McAleese said.

General Practitioner Dr Gihan Jayaweera believes health practitioners have a key role to play in addressing Australia’s growing obesity epidemic and reducing chronic disease diagnoses.

“As a GP, a lot of my work involves seeing patients with preventable diseases such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Many of these patients are also overweight or obese.

“One of the beautiful things about being a GP is that we can play a proactive role in providing ‘lifestyle prescriptions’ that address risk factors such as weight. Healthy lifestyle advice can potentially prevent or reverse these types of diseases.

“Often these conversations about weight are put off due to lack of resources, time or even lack of confidence but with excess weight being linked to heart disease, diabetes and some cancers it's critical that we prioritise these conversations and have them as early as possible.”

Dr Jayaweera said it’s encouraging to see that people are feeling more comfortable to have these conversations with their health professionals and that it indicates a real opportunity to overcome historical barriers.

“We know in the past what has stopped many patients from turning to their doctor for advice on weight is fear of weight bias or stigmatising attitudes from health care providers.

“Although these conversations can sometimes make both the GP and the patient feel uncomfortable, it is worth pushing through this discomfort as the results could literally be life changing.”

With people starting to become more open to these conversations, it’s important that health professionals are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to lead these conversations effectively and sensitively, said Dr Jayaweera.

“As GPs, we don’t always get training on motivational interviewing and behavioural change, so it is always good to invest in these types of skills.

“A fifteen-minute conversation with a patient about health and weight could give them the information and confidence they need to start living a healthier life and potentially even prevent a chronic disease diagnosis,” Dr Jayaweera said.

Cancer Council Victoria has developed training for health professionals to increase their knowledge and skills to talk to patients about health and weight.

The one-hour online module provides practical information and resources focusing on behaviour change conversations, engaging language and communication, the 5As framework, resources and referrals.

Following completion of the module, 100% of participants said they would recommend the training to other health professionals, with the average reported confidence increasing as well.

A one-day intensive workshop with a key focus on motivational training techniques is also available for Victorian health professionals in March this year.

For more information and to enrol, visit cancervic.org.au/healthyweight/gps-and-health-professionals

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About the survey

LiveLighter’s annual shape of Australia survey, conducted in July and August 2021 analysed responses from more than 2000 Australians aged 18-65 on health, nutrition and physical activity behaviours. Quota requirements were applied to achieve a nationally representative sample in terms of gender, age group, and state or territory.

About Cancer Council Victoria’s training for health professionals:

The Talking to patients about health and weight training aims to provide evidence-based information and build skills on how to have effective and sensitive, patient-centred conversations about health and weight, as part of routine care. A range of practical information and resources are provided to aid the conversation with patients around achieving a healthy weight, including intervening early to reduce risk of chronic disease.

  1. Online – a 1-hour online training module
  2. Face to face – a full day intensive course (6 hours learning)

The one-day training dedicates a significant amount of time on the day to practising the skills taught, including the application of motivational interviewing.

Both courses are RACGP accredited under the RACGP CPD program. To enrol, visit: cancervic.org.au/healthyweight/gps-and-health-professionals