Research has found GPs are falling short in detecting obesity, which may lead to poor weight management support.

Weighty Problem

01 November 2013

In a region where 70 per cent of adults are overweight or obese, a new study conducted by University of Newcastle and HMRI researchers has found that doctors are falling short in detecting weight conditions, which may lead to inadequate assistance with managing weight.

HMRIThe study involving 1100 patients and 51 GPs found that more than 40 per cent of overweight and obese patients were incorrectly diagnosed, including around 12 per cent of those classified as obese under the Body Mass Index scale being considered non-overweight.

Men, particularly those without hypertension or Type 2 diabetes, had higher odds of not being identified, possibly indicating that GPs focused on those with weight-related diseases more than prevention.

The findings published in the latest Journal of General Internal Medicine mirrored those reported almost 20 years ago by Laureate Professor Rob Sanson-Fisher*, who also worked on the latest study. That is despite increased prevalence and awareness of weight issues and the availability of primary care guidelines.

"Of those who are overweight and obese, GPs identified them correctly only 63 per cent of the time, where it was 59 per cent in the 1994 study, so it seems like not much has changed," lead author and PhD candidate Serene Yoong said.

"It's surprising, because excess weight is relatively easy to detect among the suite of lifestyle risk assessments. But I don't want this study to be seen as criticising GPs – rather, it highlights the fact they need a structured, systematic way of gathering the information.

"If patients put on weight progressively it can be harder to detect without regular measurements, and from my observations weighing is not always routinely checked because of time pressures.

"Some GPs are spot-on 100 per cent of the time but there is variability in the assessment process."

Patients had no resistance to being weighed when asked by researchers.

"If a doctor tells a patient they are overweight it's strongly associated with increased intention to lose weight," Ms Yoong said. "The doctor can also put a weight management plan into place."

NB: Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated using weight (kg) divided by height (m) squared. Overweight is defined as 25–29.9 kg/m2, obese is defined as ≥ 30 kg/m2. * Serene Yoong is a Senior Research Assistant with the University of Newcastle's School of Medicine and Public Health. Laureate Professor Rob Sanson-Fisher is co-leader of the HMRI Public Health Program. The research team also included Mariko Carey, Catherine D'Este, Lisa Mackenzie and Allison Boyes. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

Contact: Mark Rothfield, HMRI
Contact Phone: 0487 617 055
Contact Email: Mark.Rothfield@hmri.com.au