Are half of NHS workers obese?

12 March 2013

In an Observer article bemoaning the precarious health of our nation, Dr. Aseem Malhotra, a regular Guardian and Observer columnist, makes the point that it's hard, if not impossible, to encourage healthy habits if "hospitals continue to legitimise junk food with corridors littered with dispensers for cheap, nutritionally poor foods."

What's more, he says, "50% of the 1.4 million who work for the NHS are obese."*

This claim is, however, not sourced. A Royal College of Physicians report: "Action on Obesity" published in January this year also references the same point: "It is estimated that 700,000 NHS employees are obese, but only 15% are seen or assessed." Once again, the source remains somewhat elusive.

An independent NHS Health and Wellbeing report known as the Boorman review, from the eponymous doctor who led the research, conducted similar research.

Around 2,000 staff in a variety of NHS organisations took part.

The information was gathered through quarterly health testing days, which allowed the participants to have their body mass index, weight, waist circumference and blood pressure measured, and to receive one-to-one dietician and exercise advice. The findings were, however, never published.

When we contacted the Royal College of Physicians, they pointed us to a Department of Health (DoH) report called "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: One Year On" which does indeed mention the statistic: 

"Of the 1.2 million staff in the NHS, it is likely that around 300,000 would be classified as obese and a further 400,000 as overweight." [emphasis added]

This would seem to suggest that half of NHS staff are either obese or overweight, which isn't quite the same as the statistic put forward by Dr. Malhotra. In fact, only around a quarter are obese.

It is of course possible that things have changed since then, following a number of DH measures and proposed actions to tackle the problem, some of which are detailed here

Following the publication, Ipsos MORI ran a poll which found that 37% of the public would not accept health advice from a healthcare professional who appeared to have an unhealthy lifestyle.

It's of course also important to bear in mind that these findings show that obesity within the NHS workforce reflect the national average. In fact, the 2011 Health Survey for England found that around a quarter of adults are obese (24% of men and 26% of women), while 65% of men and 58% of women are overweight or obese.

* The prevalence of overweight and obesity is measured by body mass index (BMI), calculated by dividing an individual's weight in kilograms by the square of the height in metres. Anyone with a BMI of 25 to 30 is classed as overweight, whereas anyone with a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese. 


Flickr image courtesy of puuikibeach

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