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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
NHS 'failing to tackle obesity'
Obesity is a serious problem
Many obese people do not have access to expert advice to help them lose weight, a survey has found.

The study comes as experts call on the government to beef up its efforts to tackle a problem which kills thousands of people a year, and can contribute to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Independent analysts Doctor Foster found over half of primary care organisations in the UK have not organised weight management clinics.

And while some GPs do have direct access to dieticians, almost one-third do not.

One in five adults in this country are obese and it is causing more chronic illness even than smoking
Dr Ian Campbell
The survey also found that over half of all primary care organisations have no strategy in place to audit the way GP practices tackle obesity, or to monitor the implementation of guidelines designed to address the problem.

It found that some areas are still refusing to fund drug and surgical treatments for obesity - despite guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) recommending these treatments.

However, the survey also showed that some PCOs have taken positive steps:

  • Sunderland Teaching Primary Care Trust has a weight management clinic which offers patients access to a psychologist
  • Heart of Birmingham PCT incorporates cognitive behavioural therapy into its clinic's over-eating programme
In addition, recent government initiatives, such as prescribing exercise, and encouraging people to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, had been adopted by almost every primary care organisation.

Unacceptable inequality

Dr Ian Gibson, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, said: "Although significant progress is being made by the NHS there is unacceptable inequality in services between PCOs in the UK.

"Policy needs to be driven nationally by Government and locally by PCOs."

A study by the National Audit Office has estimated that obesity costs the NHS at least 500m a year - and the wider economy more than 2bn a year in lost productivity.

It is also estimated to result in 30,000 avoidable deaths a year.

Dr Ian Campbell, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, is concerned by the lack of progress in addressing this serious medical condition.

He is calling for the government to formulate a national service framework to tackle obesity along similar lines to those in place for heart disease and cancer.

He said: "It is a cause for concern that policy around obesity is often focused primarily on excess weight as a risk factor for other chronic diseases, when it should clearly also be considered an illness in its own right.

"It is important that obese patients who are worried about their weight should feel able to go and seek their doctor for advice."

Dr Campbell also said government plans to lauch a 1m advertising campaign to promote exercise were "woefully inadequate" compared to the 700m spent by the food industry promoting products that he claims are unhealthy.

"If we start to recognise that obesity is on a par with heart disease, then we should start to treat it more proactively and aggressively.

"One in five adults in this country are obese and it is causing more chronic illness even than smoking. We are missing a golden opportunity to prevent disease in the future."

Current prescribing data shows that only approximately 1% of obese patients are on anti-obesity therapy, despite the fact that approximately one in five of the population is obese.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said initiatives to tackle cancer and heart disease would directly impact on reducing obesity rates - and said prevention was the best long term approach.

The BBC's Vicki Young
"Britain is the most overweight country in Europe"

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