Essays

Essays July 2011

The Canadian Obesity Network is Nice, Eh?

Arya Sharma, MD

Given that today is Canada Day, I thought it may be worthwhile to reflect on my past nine years in Canada - particularly on, what I would consider my only real contribution - helpng launch the Canadian Obesity Network (CON).

What many of my readers (and I know several are loyal and enthusiastic network members) may not realise is that, with almost 6000 members, CON is now by far the largest national network of obesity researchers, health professionals, decision makers and other folks with a ‘professional’ interest in obesity anywhere in the world.

In May, the network’s 2nd National Obesity Summit in Montreal drew almost 800 attendees.

To put this in perspective: the US, European, or even the World Congress of Obesity, draw only about two to three times as many attendees.

Considering that Canada’s professional obesity community, is probably proportionally no bigger than elsewhere, one may have expected CON to perhaps have a few hundred members with a few dozen showing up at a Canadian Summit.

So, how do I explain this remarkable ’success’ to my European and US colleagues - who continue to wonder about our ‘magic ingredient’?

I tell them that this meteoritic growth and impact was possible only because Canadians are ‘nice’!

Here’s how the network happened: in 2005 (as a still recent recruit to a Canada Research Chair at McMaster University), I learnt of a call for funding proposals by the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program.

I knew that a lot of excellent obesity research was happening across Canada but also, that there appeared to be very little interaction between researchers or health professionals outside their own field of interest (certainly not an issue unique to Canada).

Of course, the exercise people knew the other exercise people and went to their exercise meetings, the food and nutrition people knew other food and nutrition people and went to their food and nutrition meetings, the public health people went to their public health meetings, the basic science people went to their basic science meetings, the medical people went to their medical meetings - everyone was working away on their own little piece of the ‘elephant’.

Clearly, a ‘network’, that would help connect all these folks and foster an exchange of ideas may provide new solutions to Canada’s emerging obesity epidemic.

But, I did not know the Canadian ‘movers and shakers’ in obesity — the people I would need to include, if this proposal was to stand even a remote chance of success (the NCE is one of the most competitive funding programs in Canada).

After a few hours online, I came up with a list of about a 100 researchers, who, based on their recent publications, apparently had an interest in obesity - on diverse topics ranging from cell biology to city building and school programs to bariatric surgery).

I sent each of them a friendly e-mail, introducing myself and floating the idea of applying for funding to create a ‘Canadian Obesity Network’. The submission deadline was about five weeks away, but hey, if enough people thought this was a good idea, I’d be happy to take the lead and hammer out the proposal.

Imagine my surprise when within hours of sending out this request, virtually everyone responded wanting ‘in’ and asking how they could help.

I had not offered them money (it would only have been a measly $4000 per applicant, had I simply offered to give each one their share of the funding pie).

I had not presented a detailed outline of what the network would actually do (I wasn’t so sure myself).

I had never met most of these people and I am sure most had never heard of me.

But perhaps, I was most surprised, because, back in Germany (where I came from), any such response would have been unimaginable - my colleagues from around the world assure me that, a similar approach in their countries would also have elicited a few luke warm responses if any.

And yet, here in Canada, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the enthusiasm.

Not wanting to write the proposal alone, I asked the teenage son of a colleague to set up a ‘Wiki’ and invited everyone to go online and write a paragraph or two about themselves and what they thought this network should be about — and they did!

Within hours, I had 100s of lines of text from people, who freely shared their ideas and enthusiasm (back in 2005 Wikis and ‘crowd sourcing’ were yet to become buzzwords).

But I needed more from them — I wanted them to go to their Deans and department Chairs for letters of support, signatures, and to solicit tangible commitments in support of this proposal — so I was asking for actual work.

Again, within days, letters and signed forms from universities across Canada began appearing in my in-box.

So the researchers were on board — but that was not enough.

We also needed support from a wide range of other ’stakeholders’ — professional associations, industry, government and non-government organizations.

So, I sent out another set of e-mails and once again the response was enthusiastic. Within days, I had over 120 letters of support from across Canada.

In the meantime, I sketched an outline of what I though may be a reasonable logo (it had to of course involve a maple leaf) and took it to the university’s graphic design people, who crafted the logo (including the rather fine ‘Canadian’ touch of the measuring tape on the logo being in centimetres and not inches).

We set up a website and let people, who began coming out of the woodwork, sign up to ‘join’ the network in exchange for telling us who they were and what their ‘professional’ interest in obesity was — hundreds signed up within the first few weeks (even before we submitted our application).

To cut to the chase, Canadians from St. John’s to Victoria bought into the idea, donated their time, shared their ideas, wrote letters, responded to e-mails, filled out forms, dialled into conference calls and more. All this over the summer months of July and August, where any self-respecting Canadian should be out camping or relaxing at their cottage.

A similar response, speaking to colleagues around the world, would have been unimaginable anywhere but Canada (and I’d be happy to be proven wrong!).

Membership in the network is free, anyone with a professional interest in obesity can join simply by registering at www.obesitynetwork.ca.

Members receive newsletters, access to obesity management tools and other resources, and become part of Canada’s professional obesity community.

To date CON has trained over 3000 health professionals and has hosted regional and national workshops on everything from built environments to weight-bias and discrimination (the latter event garnering over 40 million media impressions worldwide).

CON’s capacity building initiatives support Student Chapters at Canadian univerisities, an annual Obesity Student Bootcamp (to teach graduate students about obesity — not to lose weight!), and national student conferences. There is now a tightly woven sub-network of over 1000 students and young professionals with a keen interest in obesity prevention and management.

The network also supports national initiatives to address childhood obesity and works closely with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to define a research agenda to support health care for Canadian kids and adults struggling with excess weight.

It has brought together provincial and territorial decision makers to develop obesity strategies and has partnered with the Public Health Agency of Canada on guidelines and tools for obesity management in primary care.

In just five short years, on what many would consider a ’shoe-string’ budget (the network has only three full-time staff - I ‘volunteer’ my time), CON has rallied a diverse community of obesity researchers, health professionals, decision makers and other stakeholders behind it to transform the professional obesity landscape in Canada at a pace that has other countries asking how Canada did this.

Of course, even these efforts have yet to have a noticeable impact on preventing and reducing the burden of obesity on the mental, physical and economic health of Canadians - a burden that is conservatively estimated to be about $20-50 billion annually (and growing).

For the network to continue and further expand its work, it will need substantially more support and funding - the enthusiasm of its members is clearly not a rate-limiting factor here. Several forward-thinking corporations and organisations have stepped up to partner with the network - more need to do so.

Clearly, much remains to be done and all who would like to join and support these activities are more than welcome to put their weight behind this network (pub intended).

I, for one, am proud to be part of this journey and am thankful to be in Canada to do this.

If the Canadian Obesity Network is anything — it is truly Canadian.

Happy Canada Day!

AMS,
Edmonton, Canada

References

From Dr. Sharma's Obesity Blog.
Posted: 01 Jul 2011 06:00 AM PDT

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