Porter Novelli

It is not new news that healthcare in the US is going through an unprecedented transformation, and it is also no secret that obesity is a massive epidemic, as nearly 38 percent of US adults are obese. Given this, what issues face communicators advocating for healthy lifestyles and options to reduce obesity?

In this controversial obesity space, PR pros need to carefully communicate that the disease is much more that just “overeating,” with myriad confounding factors and outcomes. Especially as the population ages and the rates of chronic disease rise, and the cost of providing care is continuing to increase, so it is important to emphasize the public health impact of obesity – diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea – to instill the knowledge that it is crucial to address the root cause. This is a disease that can be combated.

The treatment landscape for obesity is also undergoing a sea change, as evidenced by the first FDA approval of a weight loss medication in more than a decade, swiftly followed by a second, and a third on the horizon. Perceptions of bariatric surgery are also undergoing a facelift as researchers and advocacy groups demonstrate the impact of surgery on overall health and morbidity beyond just weight loss. Communications efforts around these groundbreaking announcements have some common benchmarks, which can be applied more widely to PR initiatives that forge new ground within a complex environment.

1. Acknowledge preconceptions of chronic diseases; thoughtfully address

Advocacy groups and influential media are working hard to right misperceptions and address ignorance around obesity. Many Americans do not realize that they have excess weight until their doctor informs them of a related health condition, caused by the weight. Then, upon diagnosis, many patients think that they can go on a quick diet to solve the problem. However, in patients suffering from obesity, while healthy eating and physical exercise are important strategies, in many cases, on their own they are often not enough. On top of this, there is a perception among the general public that individual choices are the main driver of obesity, rather than embedded societal factors. Comms platforms need to underscore that as a baseline, diet and exercise are fundamental; however, newer treatment approaches should be accepted and understood without judgment – especially for those with serious health risks caused by obesity. PR will play an important role in eliminating judgment and stigma, and opening the path to uptake of new treatments.

2. Understand how consumers want to receive health information

It’s a given that social media provides a powerful vehicle to both reach and foster patient communities, and especially so for obesity. People who are overweight or affected by obesity spend years researching their treatment options online, often passively listening in to the public social media commentary of those who have successfully lost weight through diet, exercise, medications or bariatric surgery. Reaching this “silent audience” and encouraging them to participate and take an active step in their fight against obesity is a unique challenge and one that requires a careful strategy to activate patient influencers in a way that both supports better health outcomes, and supports a specific brand or cause. There is a need to simultaneously recognize the commercial aspect of what we do, and provide a useful benefit to those in need. So by forming/accessing/channeling online patient communities with brand and disease messaging, our outcome is not just brand awareness but emotional support for the patient, uptake in insurance coverage, better compliance etc.

3. Consider the impact of ACA on communications

The economic impact of obesity in the United States and Canada caused by medical costs, excess mortality, and disability is approximately $220 billion per year, and costs for chronic diseases across the board are continuing to rise as new treatments arise for the people who are living longer. So, now that 33 million more people will shortly be insured, communications efforts need to facilitate uptake and understanding of the healthcare system and empower individuals to be an advocate for their own health. PR messages around chronic diseases will need to drive dialogue supporting newly identified cost-saving solutions, encourage preventative care and wellness, and highlight ways to eliminate inefficiencies.


This article originally appeared on CommPro.biz.


1 Comment

  1. sgunderson1

    Your article certainly describes many of the problems with earlier messaging as well as acknowledging the complexity of the issue.  However, I am waiting for a pr firm to take the bold step to switch from the current popular media strategy of demonizing people who have been defined as obese and blaming them for their choices to acceptance by the public that obesity is a difficult issue for society and individuals.  An even bolder message to the public that people who are obese are often eating healthy meals, not sugar addicted, and exercise more frequently and vigorously then many of their skinny members of society.  The almost hysterical messaging about the obesity epidemic and its relationship with healthcare costs has dominated the popular media and continued to enforce the stereotype that all obese people eat too much or make unhealthy choices such as drinking coke and eating Cheetos and passing by any vegetables. The corresponding image of couch potatoes who never exercise or make any physical attempts to manage their health just reinforces public stereotypes and focuses blame and disgust on people who are perceived as obese in our society.  

    This public blame of individuals based on a broad generalization of all obese people as someone to look down upon is actually a barrier to reversing this disease.  Shame only drives people to look for quick and easy solutions which promotes the diet and binge mentality.  IF you believe that all of society is looking  at you and judging your body, then you also judge your body and become ashamed and desperate to fix it.  This approach does not inspire people to look logically at the different factors that are contributing to their weight and to work with doctors, fitness experts, and others to craft a realistic health based life plan that they can follow.  
    It just keeps them on the cycle of dieting and promotes personal pain and low self image.  

    What if the the public was better informed about the different underlying conditions, both physical and emotional that contribute to the obesity epidemic?  The public needs leaders to say positive messages about all body types and to promote an acceptance and celebration of who we all are despite our bodies before real change will happen.  As society changes their attitude, individuals can stop focusing on shame and blame and actually feel empowered to reach out to their physicians and support network to work together to maximize their physical health.  They can take pride in the fact that even though their bodies may not reflect the popular image of skinny magazine covers, they know that they are exercising, eating healthy foods, and addressing other issues that lead to their overall health.  I urge the media to think more broadly and effectively in the messages that will actually solve the problem instead of flaming it to new heights.