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Canadian Obesity Network connects professionals for coordinated Canadian response to obesity

Dr. Arya M. Sharma

Dr Arya M. Sharma, Scientific Director for CON-RCO

Obesity is an international epidemic. A chronic, progressive disease associated with more than thirty health conditions, it affects 29 percent of Canadians. Obesity can aggravate or even cause heart disease, stroke, cancer and many other conditions, as well as have an impact on the social and economic well-being of those affected. What’s worse, the rate of obesity in Canadian children has tripled in the last 25 years, to 26 percent. Such a serious and widespread disease requires a strong, coordinated response by health and other professionals across all disciplines and sectors.

The Canadian Obesity Network (CON-RCO) was created in 2006 as a Network of Centres of Excellence New Initiative to create this coordinated response. CON-RCO connects health professionals across disciplines and across the country in an effort to bring together obesity research, funding, prevention, and treatment strategies.

CON-RCO credits the NCE-New Initiatives (NCE-NI) with giving them the boost to move forward quickly in constructing a national dialogue on obesity. The initiative supports networking among already established researchers or teams so they can build partnerships with industries, government and other not-for-profit groups.

“Obesity is now recognized as a chronic disease that needs to be dealt with through a coordinated, national approach,” says Dr. Arya M. Sharma, Scientific Director for CON-RCO. “Canadian research conducted in 2007 found that only 14% of physicians were addressing the problem of obesity in their practices – so clearly we as health providers need to do a better job treating our overweight and obese patients.“

Since 2006, CON-RCO has raised an additional $6.0 million in cash and measurable in-kind contributions: a four-fold increase from their total NCE-NI grant. Currently, the network has the support and collaboration of 37 national and international universities, 21 government departments, hospitals and healthcare networks, 14 national and international non-government organizations, 40+ industry organizations and 20 other stakeholders with an interest in obesity and obesity related issues.

Obesity management training

CON-RCO has more than 4,000 members, including obesity researchers, health professionals and other professionals involved in obesity research, prevention and management.

Not only are these different groups connecting, but they are also learning. The first National Obesity Summit, Canada’s only national, all-obesity scientific conference, took place last year, and will return in 2011 to become an annual event. The summit included Continuing Medical Education accredited courses, pre- and post-conference workshops, cross-disciplinary plenary sessions, industry exhibits and networking opportunities. Over 1,000 delegates are expected in 2011.

With the Dietitians of Canada, CON-RCO developed an interdisciplinary educational retreat on obesity management for dieticians, an event which will continue twice a year. The network has also created programs on obesity management and treatment for pharmacists and family health teams.

“Health professionals have told us that they need more evidence-based information and tools on how to effectively manage overweight and obese patients,” says Dr. Sharma. “Excess weight affects millions of Canadians, and we know that if our health professionals can intervene appropriately, we will see improvements in diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, as well as quality of life and even our economy.

“The Canadian Obesity Network is ideally situated to help the medical community by providing tools and learning opportunities based on the latest available scientific evidence that physicians need to effectively prevent and treat obesity.”

CON-RCO is also preparing the next generation of health professionals through its Student and New Professional program, which has over 1,000 members in 24 chapters.

Addressing the way professionals and other Canadians view obesity is an important part of this training. As important  as recognizing obesity as a serious health problem is developing an understanding of the disease. Obesity is too often considered the result of bad decisions and habits, when in fact many factors play a role, including genes and current culture.

By addressing the stigma of obesity, CON-RCO can mobilize resources and focus attention on the most significant obesity issues. Once all Canadians better understand this complex disease, a more effective national strategy on obesity can be created.

Making connections online

The CON-RCO website allows members to connect and share. A member bulletin board lets members post job opportunities, events, and links to related websites. A thread updated daily introduces new members and obesity researchers are featured on the member page. All of this allows members to keep up with developments in obesity care across the country organize

New research is constantly coming out about obesity care and management, and CON-RCO has developed a tool to bring the newest research to the health care professionals who will use it: OBESITY+. The service provides peer-reviewed recommendations of journal articles to read based on users’ areas of interest, culled from leading clinical journals and aims to reduce the vast amounts of published research down to the very few articles that are must-reads. Over 2,100 doctors, nurses and other users are registered with OBESITY+.

CONDUIT magazine, sent out biannually to all CON-RCO members, and continually updated online, reports on Canadian obesity research. It focuses on innovation and collaboration across disciplines. Members can also keep up to date with news stories on obesity through the “Obesity in the News” section of the website, browsing current news in more than a dozen categories.

CON-RCO also offers Continuing Medical Education modules online through a partnership with MDBriefcase. Through this mechanism, the network can reach over 80,000 health professionals that rely on e-learning to stay on top of the latest in disease management.

Moving forward

CON-RCO’s NCE funding period ends this year, and the network has used that funding to create a community of stakeholders that can share their experiences and approaches to better address obesity in Canada. CON-RCO will continue the fight against the social, economic, and physical burden of obesity by addressing social stigma, improving access to obesity prevention, treatment and management, and changing the way professionals think about obesity.

Through their new Strategic Partnerships program, CON-RCO is connecting with new private and public partners, seeking funding to sustain the network. 

“CON-RCO’s strategy seeks to provide our partners with an opportunity to add their voice, insights and energies to goal-oriented action to address obesity,” says Dr. Sharma. “As a national organization, we want to open the lines of communication between the many different sectors and industries that can and want to play a role in making Canada a healthier country.”

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