Obesity in Children with Disabilities: The Bloorview Research Institute is Starting the Conversation

obesity2Childhood obesity is a big topic in the news lately, but did you know that children with disabilities are even more likely to struggle with weight issues?

Dr. Amy McPherson, a scientist at the Bloorview Research Institute at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, conducts research to better understand weight communication, assessment and management for children with disabilities.

Dr. McPherson and her team recently received funding from the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Canada (SBHAC) to conduct research in weight management for children with spina bifida.  Dr. McPherson hopes that the findings will enable her to provide guidance for conversations about weight and well-being between healthcare providers, families, and children with disabilities.

Children with spina bifida and other disabilities are at a particularly high risk of obesity, which can in turn worsen their condition, lead to new medical problems, and limit their quality of life. Overweight children with disabilities also risk high blood cholesterol, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

Dr. McPherson first began looking at weight-related issues in the spina bifida population when she conducted a review of medical charts in 2011 which suggested that weight was not a priority issue in many conversations with clients and their families. This was followed by a study in 2012 that surveyed healthcare providers across Canada to understand how they were measuring weight in kids with spina bifida, and just as importantly, how they talked about weight management with these clients.

“When we asked healthcare providers how they were assessing and discussing weight with their clients with spina bifida, we got consistent feedback that better options were needed,” explained Dr. McPherson.

Her findings showed that healthcare providers in pediatric spina bifida clinics were dissatisfied with the methods currently at their disposal to assess weight in children with spina bifida.  Traditional techniques like Body Mass Index don’t work well for children with a different body composition, and the healthcare providers expressed interest in new weight assessment tools developed specifically for children with certain disabilities.

Dr. McPherson was also surprised to find that weight was not routinely discussed with children and their families.  The reason for this became clear as she looked at the data: only 25 per cent of healthcare providers rated themselves confident to discuss weight-related issues with these patients.

The findings from this first survey study led Dr. McPherson to develop her current study entitled “How Should We Talk About Weight-Related Issues in Spina Bifida Consultations?  Perspectives from Children, Families, and Healthcare Professionals.”

With this work, Dr. McPherson hopes to move beyond just describing participant experiences to developing more appropriate tools and techniques that can help healthcare providers feel more comfortable raising the important issue of weight.

“The feedback I have got from healthcare providers so far has been invaluable.  Now, we are going to use that feedback, along with the views of children and families, to develop guidance around measuring and discussing weight in kids with disabilities,” said Dr. McPherson. “Maintaining a healthy weight is incredibly important for all children, and we want to ensure that healthcare providers, clients, and families are comfortable working together to help achieve that goal.”

For more information on this study, contact Amy McPherson in the Bloorview Research Institute at amcpherson@hollandbloorview.ca.

The Bloorview Research Institute

The Bloorview Research Institute is located onsite at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation teaching hospital.  The Bloorview Research Institute is the only hospital-embedded pediatric rehabilitation institute in Canada.