Physicians are making great strides in learning how to effectively treat obesity despite the innumerable challenges that stand in the way of patients’ success. Overweight and obese patients sometime must face their own internalized stigma — but what happens when they leave their provider’s office? If a patient doesn’t have social support, their success can be derailed — and not just at the beginning stages of weight loss, but also when it comes to long-term maintenance.
Of course, having their physician’s support is crucial, as many patients are not familiar with the most effective and safe methods to lose weight. For those with a significant amount of weight to lose, a medically supervised diet may be the only successful way to get to a healthy weight (short of costly and sometimes invasive surgeries). It is usually the doctor’s role to provide the information, resources, and expertise necessary to make such a drastic health change happen. But recent studies are starting to show that positive (rather than instructive) social support appears beneficial in weight loss maintenance.
If you’re a health care provider seeing overweight patients who are reluctant to start a weight loss program, having trouble being compliant, or experience regain after successfully completing a program, you may need to assess whether or not a lack of social support is a factor.
Don’t be afraid to ask your patients directly about what kind of support they have (or don’t have) outside your office. Do they experience bullying or fat shaming in their workplace or community? Do they have family or friends who encourage them? Do they have family or friends that enable their bad eating habits?
As a provider, there may be some things you can do to fill these gaps to help your patients be more successful. Consider some of these strategies:
1. Do you have a psychologist, nutritionist, or health educator on staff?
Perhaps this person can start a weekly or monthly support group for weight loss patients, a “no judgement group” where patients can meet with other patients to vent, share successes and frustrations, and know they are not alone in the process. This can create wonderful morale that supports the weight loss journey. If you don’t have a staff member who can facilitate this, perhaps you can identify a patient or volunteer who would be willing to facilitate this kind of gathering.
2. Encourage your patients to buddy up.
According to one study, participants who enrolled in a weight loss program with friends did a better job of keeping their weight off. In addition to teaming up with friends, these enrollees were given social support in addition to standard treatment. Two-thirds of those who enrolled with friends had kept their weight off six months after the meetings ended. In contrast, only a quarter of those who attended on their own had achieved that same success. Ask your patients if they have family or friends who are interested in losing weight too, and provide a referral incentive for getting them onboard. That’s a win-win for both of you because that also adds to your patient census!
3. Start an online community for your patients.
If you don’t have the time, money, or space to do a formal support group, social media provides us with great free alternatives. For example, you can create a secret, invitation-only Facebook group that allows patients to interact with and support each other, while still being a safe and confidential space. Have a staff member moderate the group to ensure ground rules are being followed, and incorporate it into your practice’s usual social media routine. Need some help with exploring the possibilities through social media? Download our free helpful guide of tips to learn how to effectively use social media for your weight loss program.
Sources: American Psychological Association, NCBI, Mayo Clinic
Blog written by Vanessa Ramalho/Robard Corporation