Mobilizing to Fight Childhood Obesity

January 31, 2008

The escalating campaign against childhood obesity gained a resourceful new ally this month when the national YMCA proclaimed that it intends to become America’s leading anti-obesity crusader. With their pervasive local presence and their fitness facilities, YMCA branches will bring many welcome assets to the effort. The challenge now is to link community agencies like the Y, as well as local schools, with health care professionals who can help children and their families ward off obesity and curtail the accompanying chronic illnesses.

Childhood obesity is one of the most urgent and serious health threats confronting our nation. During the last four decades, obesity rates have soared nearly fivefold among children between the ages of 6 and 11. More than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation warns, if our nation fails to reverse this ominous trend, we’re in danger of raising the first generation of American children who will live sicker and die younger than the generation before them.

The well-documented culprits include poor diet, insufficient exercise and genetics. Researchers are focusing increasingly on other social and physiological influences that exacerbate these familiar explanations. Evidently the odds of becoming obese are much higher among people with obese friends. One hunch is that those pervasive images of obese hip-hop performers bedecked in “bling” in rap videos reinforce the message to impressionable young people that obesity is cool.

Prevention, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and management of chronic disease have been second-class citizens under the health care finance system. The good news is that a survey released last fall by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the nation’s schools have made considerable improvements in nutrition, fitness and health over the last six years. The federal government as well as insurers and employers are beginning to flex their muscle by prodding Medicaid patients and employees to take better care of their health.

These initiatives move us in the right direction. Yet the staggering scale of the epidemic means all-out combat against childhood obesity. We need, in military terms, more boots on the ground. In other words, we should deploy vastly more health care professionals, namely doctors, nurses and nurses’ aides, physical fitness specialists and more to help children and their families cope with and overcome obesity.

Our idea is to mobilize retired physicians and health care workers to serve their country by joining in a crusade to combat childhood obesity, especially in those communities and among the children where the problem is most acute. They could serve in schools, YWCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, community centers, neighborhood clinics, childcare centers, churches and other venues where they can establish and sustain regular contact with children and their families.

Health care professionals who have retired, or are on the cusp of retiring, constitute a potentially vast resource that could be tapped. According to the National Association of Retired Physicians, 250,000 doctors are age 55 or over. As these baby boomers wind down their practices, many undoubtedly will have the interest, energy and public spiritedness to contribute their time and expertise to a pressing cause like combating childhood obesity.

Several approaches to mobilizing retirees come to mind. One way is to emulate and expand the many local efforts already under way. Another is to call upon states to take the initiative.

There arguably is a more logical, convenient and potentially scalable option. The Corporation for National and Community Service is the independent federal agency created in 1994 to oversee domestic community service programs like AmeriCorps, VISTA and the Senior Corps. The latter connects 500,000 volunteers age 55 and older with people and organizations that need support.

We could create a Retired Health Care Professionals Corps under the aegis of the Senior Corps, with volunteers deployed to keep kids from becoming overweight and obese, to assist helping overweight and obese children to lose weight and adopt healthier lifestyles and to help overweight and obese youngsters manage the chronic illnesses that may develop as a result of their condition.

As with any novel endeavor, a number of thorny issues must be addressed and resolved. For instance, besides tapping pediatricians and family practitioners, could a former cardiologist be of service? Would volunteers be obliged to carry malpractice insurance? And, to what extent could these physician-volunteers function from home?

A careful feasibility analysis to answer these questions is a logical next step. Aligning an underutilized asset with an urgent societal need, the Retired Health Care Professional Corps could prove to be an invaluable weapon in America’s fight against childhood obesity.