The way the health-care system deals with patients who have weight issues isn't working, say health professionals who met in Sydney on Friday to discuss the problem.

Dr. Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University, studies how people living with obesity are treated by the system. She advises health-care providers to have a non-judgmental and respectful relationship with patients.

"People have spoken about how they would go to their doctor and the doctor would not want to touch them for something like putting a blood pressure cuff on," she said.

"One person said, 'You know, I could see the look of absolute disgust on his face.'"

Sara Kirk

Dr. Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion, says people's health can suffer if they're made to feel ashamed about their weight. (Submitted by Dalhousie University)

Kirk said when people are made to feel ashamed of their weight, there are consequences. 

"If an individual feels bad about themselves and they are getting that vibe from their health-care provider, then they're not going to go for support," she said.

"What we find in the published literature is that a lot of people with a weight problem actually aren't going for preventative care and then they are more likely to have a serious condition."

Kirk said our environment encourages people to eat more and move less — with communities built for driving and fast food available on every corner.

Thin doesn't equal healthy

About 200 people attended sessions during the one-day conference at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital aimed at "increasing competency" in how weight is approached in health care.

Speakers said there are still health-care professionals who believe stigma and shame can motivate people to lose weight.

Dr. Brenda Durdle, a psychologist, gave a presentation called "Body Shaming: How's That Workin' For Ya?" She said people have to stop worrying about being thin and start worrying about being healthy.

"If I am a small person and I am not fit, I am at much more risk of illness than someone who is obese who is fit," said Durdle. "A person can be obese who is fit." 

Susan Taylor, who organized the conference, said her goal is to raise awareness about the complexity of the issue and to improve conversations with patients about weight.

"That means looking at our own perceptions and bias around weight," she said.