PAs Can Become Leaders in Obesity Medicine

Karli Burridge Calls Obesity Medicine a Rewarding Specialty

By Jennifer Walker

Karlijn Burridge, PA-C

When it comes to addressing the obesity epidemic, Karlijn Burridge, PA-C, says the medical community needs all hands on deck. More than two-thirds of adults have overweight or obesity diagnoses that can lead to other serious conditions, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Estimated national costs for these conditions range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion, while patients diagnosed with obesity spend 42 percent more on healthcare costs than patients who do not have obesity, according to The State of Obesity, an annual report produced by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Obesity is not a personal choice,” Burridge says. “It’s a chronic, relapsing, multifactorial disease that should be treated the same way as any other chronic disease state. And we need PAs to step up because the numbers are so astronomical right now.”

AAPA also believes PAs are in a position to become leaders in obesity medicine. They work across specialties, so they have many opportunities to interact and possibly intervene with patients who are affected by this disease. Having PAs on the frontline also makes sense from an economic standpoint, says Eric Peterson, AAPA’s Senior Director, Education & Quality. Obesity care is time intensive, and PAs are able to spend more time with patients than physicians are.

For PAs to take charge in obesity medicine—a subject that is not often covered in PA schools—the first step is for all of them to have baseline knowledge in diagnosing and treating this disease. “Understanding just the basics of the disease would help people have more fruitful, positive conversations with patients and provide resources so they can tell their patients where to go next,” Burridge says.

To help PAs acquire this basic knowledge, AAPA unveiled Obesity Leadership Edge (OLE), a seven-module online curriculum, earlier this year. The first six modules are currently available, and module seven will be released at the end of August.

Obesity Leadership Edge covers diagnosis and treatment of obesity. In modules one and two, PAs will learn how to evaluate patients with obesity and obesity-related complications, obtain a complete weight history, and design a comprehensive treatment plan. Modules three though six cover the elements of that treatment plan, which could include lifestyle changes, anti-obesity medications, and bariatric surgery.

In these modules, PA’s will learn how to identify problematic eating behaviors and prescribe physical activity, as well as how to select the most appropriate weight loss medications, identify patients who are eligible for bariatric surgery and make referrals, and use motivational interviewing, a counseling technique that guides patients in finding the internal motivation they need to change behaviors. Module seven puts everything together by guiding PAs to assess their work environment and identify resources that are needed to effectively manage obesity.

AAPA will also be providing education resources during National Obesity Care Week, which will be held from October 29th to November 4th. This advocacy week has different themes, including Weight Bias Day, Medically Managed Weight Loss Day, and Bariatric Surgery Day. As a partner, AAPA will be writing articles about these topics and more throughout the week.

For PAs who wish to connect with other PAs interested in obesity medicine, AAPA supported the formation of a Special Interest Group (SIG) in Obesity Medicine. In the SIG, members can ask questions about getting started in this specialty and learn about conferences that focus on obesity. PAs can also get advice on treating patients with this disease—for example, one PA recently asked about phentermine dosage—and make plans to meet up with one another at conferences or events. As of July, the group had 43 members. Burridge, the SIG’s co-leader, says all PAs interested in obesity medicine, regardless of their specialty, are welcome to join.

For PAs who want to go further and specialize in obesity medicine, the Obesity Medicine Association (OMA) organizes two big conferences every year around this topic. (AAPA is also working on programming for PAs who want to specialize.) This is where Burridge went after realizing she wanted to work in this field.

Karli Burridge with her second-grade daughter, running a 5K together

Before becoming a PA, Burridge was a graduate student in clinical exercise physiology. There, she read Tom Farley’s Prescription for a Healthy Nation. The book said the vast majority of people saw a primary care provider at some point during a given year, which meant primary care providers were in a position to step up and take the lead in obesity treatment. So after graduating from PA school in 2009, Burridge worked in primary care in Arizona. But since obesity medicine wasn’t part of her PA school curriculum, she didn’t have the education or guidance needed to incorporate this specialty into her practice.

Burridge then decided to take her career in a different direction: She moved to Texas to work in bariatric surgery, where she educated patients about healthy lifestyle changes and obesity treatment. This was a fascinating specialty, she says, but also a challenging one because she couldn’t help patients who regained weight after surgery or who didn’t qualify for the surgery. Then, while looking for resources about medical treatment of obesity, she found the OMA and began attending the organization’s conferences and one-day workshops.

Today, Burridge specializes in obesity medicine at Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, Texas. She conducts thorough assessments for patients who have been diagnosed with obesity, and designs individual treatment plans that include nutrition, behavioral change, physical activity, and, when indicated, prescription weight loss medications and referrals for bariatric surgery. She is also the chair of OMA’s NP/PA Committee, and she is on the Educational Advisory Board for AAPA’s Obesity Leadership Edge Curriculum.

Obesity medicine is a rewarding specialty, Burridge says. “When we treat the obesity with compassion, empathy, and evidence-based medicine, we can affect not just their obesity, but many medical related conditions as well, and really improve the quality of patients’ lives,” she adds. “That is, after all, why so many of us joined this amazing profession.”

Additional Resources:
AAPA’s Obesity Leadership Edge
PA Foundation’s Vital Minds podcast on obesity

Jennifer Walker is a freelancer writer in Baltimore, MD. Contact Jennifer at jenniferwalker319@gmail.com.

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