Primary care physicians operate their clinics in ways that are different from behavioral psychologists, dieticians, or bariatric specialists. They see patients every 15 minutes. Each patient encounter is almost guaranteed to be different from both the previous appointment and the next patient appointment. There is no obesity treatment room. The schedule does not permit double booking for obese patients. The physician must quickly go from room to room and have all the tools needed at that moment to treat each patient.
Given this environment, how the physician sees himself or herself in the doctor-patient relationship is important. Primary care physicians shift between various doctor-patient roles throughout the day. For instance, a patient who presents to the office having just experienced the death of a spouse needs a physician who will empathetically listen more than talk. In this situation, the physician is a counselor. For the patient presenting with an anaphylactic reaction, the physician must quickly take action. It is not time to be a counselor but instead to take control and make rapid decisions. In either case, the physician's role is based on the presenting needs of the patient. Treating patients with tobacco dependency, alcoholism, or drug addiction requires a triage approach that is different from treating hypertension or diabetes. My responsibility is to identify how willing a patient is to fight an addiction and then be a catalyst in providing the right intervention at the right moment that will help the patient make a behavior change.
In treating addictive disorders, physicians assess both a patient's willingness to make a healthful behavioral change and which treatment option is best for that patient at that particular time. This mental triaging occurs in a moment and influences how much time and effort is spent addressing the issue.
Successful treatment of obesity requires a similar understanding of the physician as a catalyst who triages patients based on their desire to control their obesity. Unless referred by other physicians, most obese patients do not present with the chief complaint of wanting to lose weight. In the clinic, the BMI is a vital sign. I make this information available to obese patients and briefly explain what it means. I give the patient a handout that discusses the health consequences of obesity and encourage making a weight management appointment. In this way I am a catalyst trying to spark the patient's interest in treating their obesity.
To be efficient with this process, there are four categories into which I triage patients. Though not identical to Prochaska's stages of change model, which describes behavior change as going from pre-contemplation, to contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance , these categories reflect a patient's desire either to be in control of the disease or to be controlled by it. The triage categories are: Not Interested, Magic Pill, Umbilical Cord, and Personal Responsibility
The first category, called Not Interested, includes patients who are not interested or able to deal with their weight at this time. They are focused on other life issues and do not want to deal with their weight. Work and family may consume their energy in just trying to get through the day. Some may have low self-esteem regarding their weight; having tried various weight loss products or programs and failed, they do not want to fail again. Whatever the reason, dealing with weight is not on their radar screen at this time. These patients either fall into the pre-contemplation stage of change, or think about change but do not want to attempt it now. For those in this category, I express my concern about their weight and let them know the clinic has an effective obesity treatment program. Unfortunately, the majority of obese patients in my clinic are in this category.
The second category is called the Magic Pill. When the germ theory of disease encountered penicillin, the magic bullet of medicine was discovered. Unfortunately, the commercial world promotes the magic pill theory for treating obesity. A current television commercial promoting this approach features a pill that allegedly controls the body's Cortisol levels, thereby suppressing appetite, which the promoters claim results in weight reduction. Another product, marketed in San Antonio, Texas, was a liquid solution taken at 8 pm, with nothing to eat after that time. It reportedly burned away the fat while the consumer slept. An individual told me she had tried this product four times without success and asked me what she was doing wrong. I told her that her lack of success was due to the fact that the product did not work. Even the medical community has contributed to the magic pill myth. For years physicians have written prescriptions for various obesity medications, typically with poor results. If any one medication was the magic pill for obesity, there would be no overweight physicians. Pharmacotherapy can be a useful adjunct to dietary control and behavior change, but it can never be the primary treatment. Chapter 6 will discuss phar-macotherapy in more depth.
Patients in the first category can benefit from informational material. Then the provider must wait for the patient to ask for help. This may or may not happen. These patients have a medical problem but do not want to deal with it at the present time for whatever the reason. The physician can only treat the comorbidities associated with obesity, which is frustrating since many of these diseases improve with weight loss.
Those who want a magic pill are at least concerned about their weight. Unfortunately, this does not mean that patients in the Magic Pill category want to change their behavior. Changes in activity level, selection of more healthful food choices, or portion control when eating are not choices that this category of patient wants to select. These patients have been effectively marketed by the commercial world to believe in the power of the pill and will go to extremes to obtain a prescription. I recall one patient came to the clinic with some unusual symptoms that could not be explained by her medical conditions or medications. Finally he brought me her bottle of Adipex-P (phentermine) that he had obtained by mail order from another state. His symptoms resolved with discontinuation of the medication. He never chose to attend the program offered by the clinic. He continues to vacillate between the first two categories: either he is not interested in addressing his obesity or he pursues promises promoted on television or the Internet.
Another example of a patient trapped in the Magic Pill delusion involved a high-ranking military officer. It was obvious that he was struggling with being overweight. One day he asked me for the "fat burning pill." With all due respect, I told him control is more about the person than the pill. At that point he changed the discussion because he was not able or willing to change his lifestyle. Using the change behavior model, patients in the Magic Pill category are in the contemplation stage, but unfortunately they are contemplating in the wrong way by thinking the power for change is in the pill.
The third category is called the Umbilical Cord. Patients come to the office and want to know what diet I prescribe. As a clinical expert in treating obesity, I must have some secret or special diet that helps burn the fat away. From their perspective, my job is to pass them the revolutionary Dr McKnight Weight Loss Diet as if it were life flowing from me to them through an umbilical cord. The authors of various diet books promote this myth. In an oversimplified way, the extreme dietary positions are, at one end, Dr Atkins' animal diet  and, at the other, Dr Ornish's plant diet . Both physicians claimed to have found the truth in terms of weight loss, yet their plans are at opposite ends of the dietary spectrum. Add to this the ever-increasing number of diet books on the shelves, and it is no wonder the public is confused by the conflicting advice of all those who claim to have discovered the dietary truth regarding weight loss.
Many patients who present to the clinic for weight loss have a collection of weight loss books on their shelves at home. They are looking for the special diet, like a fat-burning suit they can climb into for a period of time that will melt away the fat. These patients gain no insight into how their daily habits cause their obesity. And certainly they have no knowledge, process, or program to keep the weight off other than to eat as a book tells them to. Patients in this category can be disheartened to learn that obesity control is not about the diet but about the person.
Finally, having one's name ascribed to a particular diet is very tempting. Can you imagine the egotistical seduction of patients saying that the long-lost key to losing weight forever is the Dr McKnight weight loss diet? I would not need a promotional agent. With success stories mounting, the publicity alone would carry me to multiple appearances on television talk shows.
On the other hand, there is a downside to the umbilical cord myth. Imagine what words will be spoken by those who are not successful? When people fail and they do not see themselves as being responsible, then whose name will come to their mind as the cause of their failure? Personally, I prefer not to step into that trap. Certain diets and medications are helpful for weight loss for some people, but there is no special diet or magical pill that leads to long-term weight loss for everyone.
Unlike those in the Not Interested group, patients triaged into the second or third category are concerned about their weight and can be moved into the Personal Responsibility category. I do this by spending time in trying to help the patient first understand that obesity is a chronic, recurrent disease. Just like asthma or diabetes, once present it will never go away. Then I ask the patient, "Do you want control of this disease?" If the answer is yes, then I would consider the patient in the fourth category. If the answer is no, then as a catalyst I would continue to provide information and encouragement but realize that the spark to ignite behavioral change is without effect at this time.
The fourth category is called Personal Responsibility. When patients say to me that they know their weight is a problem but they just don't know how to gain control of it and want help, then I get excited! As a catalyst, I am about to provide patients with the best science that will result in more than just shedding pounds. It will empower patients to gain control of their life in the most obvious way—physical appearance. To do so is not easy. Neither a pill nor a diet book teaches patients how to structure their lives to achieve weight control while the vast majority of the population is doing the opposite.
What defines the Personal Responsibility category is the first principle in the five principles of long-term weight loss. It is called Preference versus Passion. The other four principles are discussed in Chapter 11. Patients who prefer to lose weight were already described in the second and third triage category. Clearly they are concerned about their weight, but they have no staying power. Patients with a Preference to lose weight have three characteristics: they use magical thinking about how much weight to lose, assign external responsibility for the weight loss, and are unwilling to focus daily on losing weight.
Magical thinking, such as hoping to lose 20 lb in 20 days or 100 lb in 4 months without surgery, is not grounded in a healthy weight loss goal. The patient's desire to lose weight quickly is often driven by short-term goals like upcoming vacations or special social events. An extreme expression of this thinking occurred with two different patients who described the starvation diet. In both cases, out of tremendous desperation the individuals simply stopped eating. One patient lost 40 lb but regained the weight as soon as he started eating. Neither individual reasonably considered the method of weight loss. This seemed to be the quickest process to produce immediate results. Magical thinkers are driven by desperation, and unless they are at some point grounded in a realistic goal, will not be successful.
Preference patients want someone or something outside themselves to be responsible for their weight loss. This way success or, more likely failure, is someone else's responsibility. Many times I've heard patients say that such-and-such a diet or program did not work for them as if it were the diet's or the program's fault. This approach provides a scapegoat for failure and allows the patient to be a victim and not take personal responsibility for failure.
Finally, Preference patients do not focus daily on what it takes to be successful with weight loss. Gripped by passion and desire today for losing weight, tomorrow it will be as if the previous day's plan and commitment were ancient history. They are not willing or are unable to understand that weight gain and weight loss are both a gradual but a cumulative process. To help patients understand the need for a daily focus on their weight loss program, I tell them successful treatment of obesity is like having a successful pregnancy. No less than 9 months is typically required for the birth of a healthy baby. During those months a daily focus on healthy food choices, appropriate exercises, and medical check-ups is needed to produce the most optimal outcome.
Successful treatment of obesity takes a commitment to focus daily on the program over a period of time. Patients must be willing to stay focused for 6 months on losing weight so that the loss is from fat cells shrinking and not loss of muscle or water. Patients need to know it takes 6 months and not 6 weeks to attain the weight loss goal. Commitment to this amount of time is one of the requirements to be in the program. Once the patient makes the commitment, then I know the chance of long-term success has gone up. If the patient does not embrace this fundamental concept of time, then I tell him or her that maybe now is not the time to begin a weight reduction program.
When patients have Passion they present with the opposite characteristics. They embrace a realistic weight loss goal. A 10% loss over 6 months is not unreasonable to them; though it may not represent their total goal, they know it is a beginning. They take personal responsibility for success or failure. It is their health problem, not someone else's. They are willing to focus daily on implementing the program. They are willing to be accountable to themselves and others for their actions. They possess an inner desire and personal honesty that the patients in the other categories do not have at that moment. In short, patients with passion are realistic about their goal, practical about the time it takes to achieve that goal, and focused daily on attaining their weight loss goal.
This triage system keeps me from becoming discouraged since the majority of obese patients are not and never will be in category four. For those in category four who begin the program, I become excited knowing that if they will stay the
6-month course then success is within their grasp. They will not only be successful but in many instances will teach others how to lose weight with remarkable results. How is this possible without the physician being involved? The program outlined in this book is built around the patient being in control, not the physician, a diet, or a pill. My task is to find as many patients as possible that want control of their disease and then bring them into contact with a medically sound program based on the results of those who have successfully lost weight and maintained their weight loss. At that point my role changes from a catalyst to a coach.
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I already know two things about you. You are an intelligent person who has a weighty problem. I know that you are intelligent because you are seeking help to solve your problem and that is always the second step to solving a problem. The first one is acknowledging that there is, in fact, a problem that needs to be solved.