Outcomes Research in Review

Why Are General Practitioners Reluctant to Play a Significant Role in Managing Childhood Obesity?


O’Donnell JE, Foskett-Tharby R, Gill PS. General practice views of managing childhood obesity in primary care: a qualitative analysis. JRSM Open 2017;8(6):1–9.


Study Overview

Objective. To explore the views of general practice staff on managing childhood obesity in primary care.

Design. Qualitative study.

Setting and participants. General practices across England (n = 7303) of varying practice list size (low/medium/high) and “deprivation” level (low/medium/high, based on Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) score, which measures deprivation based on income, employment, health, education, barriers to services, living environment and crime) were stratified into a 3 x 3 matrix, resulting in recruitment targets of 3 to 5 practices per each of 9 recruitment strata. Practices in each strata were grouped into batches and approached in a random list order to take part in the study. Recruitment continued until the strata target was reached. Interviews were conducted by 2 researchers, either in the interviewee’s workplace or by telephone.

Main outcomes measures. The interview topic guide included 2 questions related to childhood obesity: (1) theirperceptions of the barriers and enablers to general practitioners taking a more active role in childhood obesity; and (2) their views on what was needed to improve integrated local pathways to manage childhood obesity. Follow-up questions were used in response to issues raised by interviewees. All interviews were audiotaped, professionally transcribed verbatim, and checked for accuracy. Copies of transcripts were available to interviewees, although none requested to see them. Key themes were identified through thematic analysis of transcripts using an inductive approach. Initial codes were discussed and combined to form themes which were discussed until agreement was reached that these reflected the data. Results are based upon a synthesis of all the interviews.

Main results. A total of 32 practices were recruited, of which 30 identified 52 staff (56% female) to participate in semi-structured interviews: 29 general practitioners (28% female), 14 practice managers (86% female), 7 nursing staff (100% female), 1 health care assistant (female), and 1 administrative staff (female). Almost all interviewees identified childhood obesity as an increasingly important issue with potential long-term health implications. However, most did not frame it as a medical problem in itself or view its management as a general practice responsibility.

Three themes were identified: lack of contact with well children, sensitivity of the issue, and the potential impact of general practice. Identifying overweight children was challenging because well children rarely attended the practice. Interviewees felt that consultation time was limited and focused on addressing acute illness. Generally, raising the issue was described as sensitive. Interviewees also felt ill equipped to solve the issue because they lacked influence over the environmental, economic, and lifestyle factors underpinning obesity. They described little evidence to support general practice intervention and seemed unaware of other services. Interviewees felt their efforts should be directed towards health problems they identified as medical issues where evidence suggests they can make a difference.

Conclusions. Although general practice staff viewed childhood obesity as an important issue with the poten-tial to impact on health outcomes, they were unconvinced that they could have a significant role in managing childhood obesity on a large scale. Participants believed schools have more contact with children and should coordinate the identification and management of overweight children. Future policy could recommend a minor role for general practice involving opportunistic identification of overweight children and referral to specialist/obesity services



The prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity continues to rise in the United States and worldwide with extensive economic, physical, and psychosocial consequences [1–6]. Lifestyle interventions that target obesity-related behaviors including physical activity, sedentary behavior, and diet, are considered the therapy of choice [7–10]. Indeed, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that clinicians screen for obesity in children and adolescents 6 years and older and offer or refer them to comprehensive, intensive behavioral interventions to promote improvements in weight status [11]. Similar recommendations can be seen in other national guidelines regarding the management of childhood obesity [12].

Beyond screening and referral, some have outlined more specific opportunities for health professionals to play a more significant role in confronting child obesity, particularly among general practitioners and primary care providers [13–15]. In addition, several reviews have looked at the expanding role of primary care in the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity [16,17]. However, it remains unclear whether provider perspectives about their role in addressing childhood obesity align with such guidelines and suggestions. In fact, several studies have discussed barriers to weight management and obesity counseling among adults by physicians, which include

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