Alberta Health Services launches obesity initiative


  • Oct. 4, 2011 11:00 a.m.

Albertans will soon have more support to maintain or move toward a healthy weight, including improved access to bariatric surgery, with the launch of the Alberta Health Services (AHS) Obesity Initiative.

The comprehensive, five-year plan will help Albertans manage weight issues in a planned and co-ordinated manner and, at the same time, will introduce a broad range of programs to help prevent obesity. Obesity is a chronic disease that affects about one million Albertans, or approximately 25 per cent of the province’s population.

The initiative includes a suite of services, from community-based programs to intensive medical intervention, all designed to reduce the burden of obesity. Currently, obesity is estimated to cost Alberta more than $1.4 billion annually in terms of reduced quality of life, a high rate of co-morbidities, loss of workforce productivity, and cost to the health care system.

Under this new initiative, there will be a number of community-based services, including school-based programs designed to address the rising rates of obesity among children. As well, there will be new programming targeting adults who are ready to adopt a healthier lifestyle and prevent future weight gain.

Bariatric surgery, which is already offered in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Medicine Hat, will see an increase in capacity over the next few years, with potential expansion to other areas. A new specialty care clinic will be established in Grande Prairie to serve northern populations.

Developing and implementing a plan for the prevention and management of obesity is among the goals outlined in the 5-Year Health Action Plan, jointly developed by the Government of Alberta and AHS, and supported by the province’s stable five-year funding.

“One of the key goals of our five-year health action plan is to support Albertans to live longer and enjoy a high quality of life,” says Gene Zwozdesky, minister of Alberta Health and Wellness. “This program will help us to achieve this goal; however, in order to succeed, we will need everyone to participate — our families, our schools, and our communities.”

AHS has committed $10.9 million for the initiative’s first year. The initiative is further supported by Alberta Health and Wellness grants of about $4.9 million.

Dr. Chris Eagle, AHS president and CEO, says the obesity initiative takes a bold and innovative approach to addressing weight-management issues.

“In the past, our care for the obese population was disease-focused; for example, let’s treat the diabetes. What we’re proposing is a more multi-pronged, comprehensive approach to care we know will ensure quality of care and better outcomes.”

During the first two years of the obesity initiative, AHS will fund prevention programs for both adults and children, increase weight-management training for health care providers within AHS and primary care, and support Albertans in obesity management.

Concurrently, AHS will expand bariatric surgery, ensure more staff are trained to support bariatric patients, increase the province’s clinical expertise, and ensure sustainable bariatric services, tools and resources.

“This initiative involves a comprehensive approach that recognizes the complexity of obesity prevention and management,” says Dr. Arya Sharma, medical director of the AHS Obesity Initiative. Sharma is also the founder of the Canadian Obesity Network and is recognized internationally for his research and treatment of bariatric patients.

“I hear all too often we wouldn’t have an obesity problem if people would just eat less and move more. It’s a position I consistently challenge because the patients I treat have far more complex challenges, ranging from physical and mental health co-morbidities to socio-economic barriers. Many patients simply do not have the capacity or support to alter their circumstances.”

Obesity is the most pervasive, progressive and serious of chronic diseases facing our province. It is linked to 22 other chronic diseases, including up to 90 per cent of all Type 2 diabetes, up to 30 per cent of cancers, and 80 per cent of cardiovascular disease.

Edmonton-area resident Marty Enokson, 44, says being diagnosed as severely obese and being ready to start making changes was a life-changer.

“This program is an amazing step forward,” says Enokson, who started his weight loss journey at 501 pounds and has already lost more than 190 pounds since undergoing bariatric surgery 30 months ago.

“I know that had I not been accepted into the program and made the conscious change in my life, I would have been in a wheelchair by now and in palliative care by the time I was 50,” says Enokson. “The program, the doctors, the dietitian and the nurses worked with me for months and months, supporting me through the change process. They truly saved my life.”

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than 3.7 million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.