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The overall health and wellbeing of those living and working in the Hartford Region is important to the MetroHartford Alliance. Content Manager Nan Price recently spoke to Novo Nordisk Medical Account Director Niki Patel, PharmD, MBA, CDCES, to learn more about how to address challenges surrounding obesity in the region. Over the last nine years, Niki has supported health plans, health systems, employers, and coalitions by sharing scientific data around diabetes, obesity, and associated chronic comorbid conditions.

NAN PRICE: How is Novo Nordisk working to help improve overall health in our region?

NIKI PATEL: The ultimate goal is to improve the lives of people living with chronic diseases in this area. At Novo Nordisk, our purpose is to drive change to defeat diabetes and other serious chronic diseases such as obesity and rare blood and endocrine diseases. We do so by pioneering scientific breakthroughs, expanding access to our medicines, and working to prevent and ultimately cure the diseases we treat.

In Connecticut, there’s a huge biotech industry and focus. We work very closely with leading universities and biotech companies to help speed up drug delivery. We’re also collaborating with Connecticut stakeholders—health systems, employers, and providers—to create healthcare pathways and provide education around obesity as a chronic disease and treatment in a comprehensive matter.

NAN: In terms of the challenges of addressing obesity, there are a lot of opinions about its causes. Can you break some of that down for us?

NIKI: First, I want to address some of the myths about obesity, because there’s a lot of stigma and bias around obesity as a disease. Many people think obesity isn’t a real disease and, to reduce obesity, we just need to eat less and move more. But that’s a myth.

In 2013, the American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease that’s defined as having excess body fat that has an adverse effect on your health. We know that diet and exercise are important, but a lot of unrelated factors also play a role, including genetics and psychosocial factors like your environment and having access to healthy food and exercise.

In addition, from the patient perspective, many people think weight loss is completely their responsibility; they blame themselves for their weight. But it’s not their fault. The science shows it’s very complex.

Also, patients struggling with weight loss are sometimes reluctant to seek professional help. It can be difficult for them to reach out to a provider.

NAN: What are some effective ways to address these challenges?

NIKI: We need to provide education from both the patient and provider aspect. Providers haven’t traditionally been trained on obesity management, so that’s an issue, too. Now there’s an entire provider specialty related to weight management and obesity management, so that’s improving. The issue is often limited reimbursement available for obesity care and poor coverage of obesity treatments which need to be addressed.

From the employer perspective, many employers prioritize wellness programs by providing access to things like Weight Watchers or virtual programs. However, that’s not the only solution. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to meet different individuals’ needs.

Supporting access to weight management solutions is key, knowing that weight loss has a positive impact on complications and greater weight loss results in more health benefits for those with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea.

NAN: Is there anything specific healthcare stakeholders in Connecticut can do?

NIKI: In Connecticut, a lot of health systems and providers understand the importance of investing in solutions around overweight and obesity. From the health system and providers’ perspective, the first thing involves increasing education and awareness amongst healthcare providers. Obesity and weight can be a sensitive topic and a difficult conversation to initiate, and there are ways to dialogue in a meaningful, compassionate way with people who are seeking support but not sure how to ask.

The second thing is creating care pathways around weight and obesity management. There are weight management specialists who focus on managing overweight and obesity and often have additional resources such as dietitians and behavioral counseling. So, how do we triage appropriate primary care patients to the right providers who provide a comprehensive approach?

The third recommendation is reducing the stigma and bias around obesity in the healthcare environment. Unfortunately, perceived provider weight discrimination often causes people with overweight and obesity to be reluctant to seek medical help, not only for weight reduction but also for any health-related problems. We need to do more to address awareness for even the best-intentioned healthcare providers who may not be familiar with the science of obesity.

NAN: What are some practical strategies for employers to make a difference for their employees?

NIKI: Employers need to provide comprehensive offerings and ensure that employees actually know about these benefits. For many employers, there’s been a huge shift in focusing on the “culture of health and wellness” and improving overall employee satisfaction. It’s important to engage employees in that culture to promote a more inclusive environment.

Employers are starting to re-evaluate their strategies around health, asking themselves questions like: Do we have a weight management strategy? How are we helping our employees manage their weight? Because ultimately it’ll help improve their health outcomes.

Employers know they’re paying for comorbidities such as diabetes, hypertension, and osteoarthritis, which can be costly. They may not realize that the underlying cause of these conditions is often overweight and obesity, and by treating the root cause, they could have a positive impact on the other chronic conditions.

So, employers need to look at the wellness programs they offer and whether they’re effective. And then, in terms of refreshing the management strategies, some employers have different tactics like reducing the out-of-pocket costs for employees who participate in behavioral wellness program, doing annual biometric screenings, offering health and wellness coaches, or providing clinical offerings like weight loss programs with pharmacotherapy.

NAN: What resources does Novo Nordisk provide to stakeholders in the Connecticut area?

NIKI: Novo Nordisk has a whole host of resources, depending on where an organization is in the process. For example, we do presentations that discuss the impact of obesity and how it can affect an organization. We walk organizations through the clinical and financial impact of weight management solutions. And we have resources specifically addressing COVID-19 and obesity.

A lot of organizations don’t know how much they’re spending on obesity because it’s not something that’s necessarily coded effectively. So, we can help them evaluate what’s going on within their organization.

Like I said earlier, our goal is to help provide awareness and resources to improve people’s health in our region.

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