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The elephant in the room: Aussie doctors expressed a ‘growing problem’

How should doctors approach the topic of weight?

<p>Would your GP hide something from your check-up? [Source: Shutterstock]</p>

Would your GP hide something from your check-up? [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • The World Organisation of National Colleges, Academies and Academic Associations of General Practitioners/Family Physicians, or WONCA, world conference will be held in Sydney from October 26 – 29, 2023
  • GPs had been encouraged to sign up for the world conference and pre-conference workshop on October 25, from 1:30pm – 3pm, which will address the language used for weight management healthcare
  • In 2017 – 19, Australia ranked fifth among OECD countries as one-third of Australian adults lived with obesity


New research has revealed that despite the high rates of obesity among older Australians, with 42 percent of men and 39 percent of women aged 65-74 affected, discussions around ‘weight management’ are often avoided during routine check-ups.

The World Organisation of National Colleges, Academies and Academic Associations of General Practitioners/Family Physicians, or WONCA, has called on GPs across Australia to attend the world conference to improve their weight management language.

Dr Terri-Lynne South, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ specific interests obesity management chair said that the conference was a wonderful opportunity for GPs, family doctors and primary health practitioners from across the globe.

“You can share your own insights and learn from others and the panel discussion on obesity on Sunday, October 29, certainly looks promising,” she said.

“Obesity is a delicate area for GPs and patients to navigate. We live in an era of social media comparisons and people suffering from body image pressures, so providing the right kind of care and support is crucial.

“GPs certainly don’t want to make people feel worse about themselves or even discriminated against; however, we can’t avoid discussing weight with patients entirely.

“This is a growing problem in Australia, with 67 percent of the nation’s adults falling into the categories of being overweight or obese alongside of a quarter of children and adolescents,” Dr South explained.

“So, clearly this is something that must be front of mind for GPs and practice teams and that includes helping people to take the steps necessary to improve their health and well-being rather than just focusing on the numbers on the scale.”


About 14 million Australians were found to be overweight or live with obesity according to the National Obesity Strategy 2022 – 2023.

“The focus needs to be on healthy and helpful conversations so that we can help patients improve their health trajectory. GPs will not talk about weight in isolation; instead, we provide holistic care and look at the patient’s entire health history and life circumstances,” Dr South continued.

“If we had separate training relating to stigma and bias and a greater understanding of the biology of weight control — that is something that could be very beneficial.

However, obesity specialists and nutrition experts were split on the topic of whether to discuss weight with patients when going for a check-up. In July, nutrition scientist Emma Beckett told the ABC that evidence suggested “we each have a weight set point that our body defends [that] is determined by genetics and environment more than [weight loss] education.”

Research from the National Library of Medicine in the United States found that across 11 countries, the majority of people with obesity assumed responsibility, agreed that obesity was a disease and were motivated to act — although clinicians were apprehensive to kick off the conversation.

Dr South highlighted the importance of respecting people’s body image whilst still acting in a clinical manner, as she referred to a 2023 study regarding body positivity and pro-ana movements.

In the study, body positivity movements that had encouraged a ‘healthy at every weight,’ mentality received praise and critique in equal measure from Australian medical professionals.

“Every patient is different and I’m mindful of research which provides [sic] that some health professionals may not fully understand the negative impacts weight stigma can have for some people,” Dr South said.

“If a patient has had bad previous experiences with a health professional and feel a sense of shame, they may be reluctant to reach out and seek help and that is the last thing we want. 

“So, the aim for GPs is to ensure people who are overweight or obese are seeking healthcare and that they are getting the same investigations or treatment as someone who’s not living in a larger body.”


The WONCA world conference will be hosted by the RACGP and will host over 800 presentations from 700 presented from across the world. Will you be in attendance? Let the team at Talking Aged Care know!

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