When considering the most prevalent health issues facing the NHS at the moment, it is difficult to look past the growing threat that obesity poses to public health. Though the topic has been in the spotlight for some time, it is becoming increasingly clear that urgent action is needed sooner rather than later.
As more and more reports emerge suggesting that obesity is becoming a bigger problem than ever before, the focus is starting to move towards possible ways that healthcare professionals can be empowered to stem the tide and address the problem before it becomes too deep-rooted.
The scale of the problem
Local authority excess weight data published by Public Health England in February of this year revealed that 64 per cent of adults living in England can be categorised as overweight or obese.
Although the rate of increase in overweight and obese adults has slowed in recent years and is also stabilising in children, it remains an unsolved problem that is complex to tackle, given the wide range of personal, social, economic and systemic issues that have contributed to its development.
Considering obesity in particular, it is estimated that nearly one in five secondary school-aged children are obese, as are one-quarter of adults - up from only 15 per cent 20 years ago.
People who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, as well as mental health issues. Overall, health problems associated with excess weight cost the NHS more than £5 billion each year, a figure that is expected to rise even further as the nation's weight problem becomes more pronounced.
The potential solutions
As such, Mr Stevens recently confirmed at the Public Health England annual conference in Coventry that a new five-year plan for tackling obesity highlighted a variety of possible solutions.
This would include a shift in NHS investment towards targeted and proven prevention programmes, such as intensive lifestyle intervention schemes that have been shown to cut obesity rates, rather than expensive after-the-fact treatments like bariatric surgery.
Meanwhile, a 'devo max' approach to empowering local councils and elected mayors in England to make local decisions on fast food, alcohol, tobacco and other public health-related policy and regulatory matters would make it easier for regional authorities to develop tailored solutions - a crucial step given the variations in obesity rates that exist across the nation.
Additionally, there will be a focus on ensuring NHS staff themselves maintain healthy weights, allowing them to set a good example for the rest of the public. This would include offering more healthy food during night shifts, while recommending that financial incentives be offered to all employers in England who provide effective workplace health programmes.
The Royal College of GPs has also called for further steps to be taken to tackle child obesity specifically, including increased support for the National Child Measurement Programme, improved investment in data-gathering IT programmes for weight management, more training in malnutrition and obesity for health professionals, and outreach projects to educate families about the dangers of obesity.
Mr Stevens said: "Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising healthcare costs. If as a nation we keep piling on the pounds around the waistline, we'll be piling on the pounds in terms of future taxes needed just to keep the NHS afloat."
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