Last 18 May was European Obesity Day (EOD). For me, this was a day to reflect, learn and discuss with patients, healthcare professionals and policymakers possible solutions to tackle the obesity epidemic in Europe.
As the most recent OECD report outlines, obesity has become a global and European epidemic with gloomy predictions for the future, which places a huge load on healthcare systems. High morbidity and mortality and decreased quality of life make it one of the most serious global healthcare challenges.
Recent data shows that its economic burden in the European Union (EU) only is €60 billion annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity. The European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO), the scientific group leading the organisation of EOD, estimated direct obesity-related costs ranging from 1.5–4.6% of health expenditure in France to around 7% in Spain.
These shocking figures were presented at the EASO Policy Conference, which took place in Brussels on 16 May and which this year focused on “The Social and Economic Impact of Preventing and Treating Obesity”.
Policymakers and the healthcare community discussed current and future options and heard from patients and doctors what needs to change to tackle this health, social and economic problem. The first interventions provided for a review of current initiatives to improve prevention, e.g. information and education on healthy lifestyles, food label, fiscal measures, enabling environment allowing healthy options, regulation (for instance on advertising, food reformulation); employment and workplace, school access.
But I am wondering what has been so far the impact of these measures? Hearing the OECD, WHO, European Commission presentations, I am afraid these measures have not entirely met their goals. I could not agree more with one of the key takeaways from the conference: obesity is a system problem. There is no single intervention but only complex responses. And, in my view, they require new, urgent, multi-faceted strategies involving all stakeholders.
Medical technologies play a key role to address obesity through innovations that allow prevention, treatment and management of the comorbidities related to obesity. Bariatric/metabolic surgery, embedded in a multidisciplinary approach, remains the most effective treatment for obesity. This minimally invasive therapy addresses not only weight loss but has positive effects on the reduction of diabetes and other chronic diseases linked to obesity. Professor Gerhard Prager, who is one of the most renowned re-known surgeons in Europe and chair the European chapter of the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders (IFSO), considers that too many barriers still exist across EU countries and that access to treatment remains unequal and insufficient in many States. Implementation of guidelines, allocation of resources and reimbursement are issues that require Government action. Of a similar opinion was Professor Kirsi Pietiläinen, from the Helsinki university hospital. She considered “n°1 priority is more resources for obesity treatment at all levels as unequal and random access to treatment for patients across Europe”.
So, how can public policy ensure that people living with obesity can be adequately screened and treated? First things first: Obesity is a disease and should be recognised and treated as such. This would guarantee that needed resources are dedicated to research, prevention and treatment. It would also ensure that obesity treatment raises to an appropriately recognised healthcare professional speciality and help address stigma and discrimination towards people living with obesity. A recognition that I hope EU and national institutions will address as a priority in the new EU legislature to meet the agreed healthcare systems’ sustainability and resiliency objectives.
Secondly, focus on education. Citizens and healthcare professionals need an equal and adequate level of understanding of how to prevent and treat obesity. I heard patients share their experiences and the daily difficulties they face. These stories tell that stigma and discrimination remain too high in our society, affecting the lives of millions of people. Further research and information can contribute to the reduction of bias and discrimination.
Each of us has a role to play in raising awareness and advocating effective solutions. Let’s make European Obesity Day every day.