Le Bonheur Plans Obesity Research Center


Dr. Jon McCullers unveiled plans for a Center for Excellence in Pediatric Obesity at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital at the recent Healthy Memphis Common Table Let’s Change Summit.

The new research center will be one of the largest of its kind in the country.

“To me, pediatric obesity is the No. 1 problem in Memphis with our kids because it drives so much of the chronic disease in terms of high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, joint orthopedic problems and so on,” said McCullers, chair of the department of pediatrics for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and pediatrician-in-chief for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. “On a statewide basis, the obesity epidemic peaked about two years ago in Tennessee, so I think there has been some progress and there is better awareness than five years ago. But there is still a long way to go.”

Tennessee ranks sixth in the nation for childhood obesity and receives an “F” on the national “Report Card: State Efforts to Control Childhood Obesity.” Roughly one-third of all school children in the Mid-South are overweight or obese, and the high obesity rates in children translate to a high number for adults as well. Alarmingly, two-thirds of adult Tennesseans are obese or overweight.

“The medical costs to the state are just staggering,” McCullers said.

“Dealing with obesity-related issues costs Tennessee approximately $3.6 billion per year and accounts for more than 10 percent of all health care expenditures in the state. That’s a tremendous toll when compared to the overall budget of the state.”

In addition to significant cost savings, initiatives to prevent obesity or its complications would, more importantly, also result in an improved quality of life for children. If obesity rates remain on their current trajectories, today’s children will be the first generation in centuries to live shorter lives than their parents, according to research from Le Bonheur.

On the job as the new chair of pediatrics at Le Bonheur since March, a main priority for McCullers was to establish research centers in the areas of pediatric obesity, asthma (the No. 1 cause of hospitalization at Le Bonheur), and developmental disabilities. The new research center for pediatric obesity will be the first of the new centers to be created.

“The idea is to recruit in researchers to study obesity and also bring in physician scientists, clinician scientists and clinicians who are interested in obesity and take this from the laboratory and out into the community with some programs that are really going to make an impact,” said McCullers, who hopes to utilize specialties throughout Le Bonheur and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Department of Pediatrics.

Multiple subspecialties will be involved, including preventative medicine, nutrition, psychology and surgery. The research side will include cardiology/exercise, nephrology/kidneys, endocrinology/diabetes, and gastroenterology/digestive issues. Le Bonheur has doubled its space for research and teaching.

Preliminary plans for the broad and comprehensive program call for an institution-wide effort with 10 to 12 physicians having direct involvement.

“We will have a clinic as a frontage piece that will be a referral clinic where kids who are obese or at risk for obesity or have complications from obesity can be referred in to be taken care of in a multi-disciplinary way,” said McCullers, who believes that as the program evolves over the next few years there probably will be a brick-and-mortar building built to house the program.

McCullers expects to leverage partnerships with Memphis Research Consortium, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the University of Memphis and others to strengthen the program.

“What we are focused on right now is bringing in a nationally prominent leader for the program. Once the program leader is in place, we will begin bringing in the other pieces,” said McCullers, who hopes to fulfill an unmet need by providing an authoritative source and a referral center for physicians and the best ways to treat obesity, deal with complications from obesity, and interact with families.