Do Doctors Treat Fat Patients Differently?
Doctors Show Bias Against Overweight Patients
MDs prefer slender people — and show bias against people who are overweight — just as frequently as the general population, a new study finds. Here's what that means for clinical care.
By Annie Hauser
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THURSDAY, Nov. 8, 2012 —Professionals they may be, but doctors are not immune to society's overwhelming preference for thin people, researchers from the University of Washington report in the journalPLOS ONE.
Using an online survey, researchers measured the anti-fat bias for almost 400,000 people, including more than 2,000 MDs. Across the board, participants demonstrated a strong preference for slender people. Underweight, normal, or overweight MDs had strong anti-fat biases while physicians who were obese themselves had a more moderate bias.
Female doctors had weaker bias than males.
Although the impact of the medical community's preference for thin people has been reviewed, this study is the first to demonstrate that doctors idealize thinness as much or more than the general population, the authors say. Whether these attitudes about weight then transfer to discrimination in the quality of health care is unclear, researchers note.
In a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, medical students were found to have a bias against overweight patients, even when the patients’ other vital signs, including blood pressure and pulse, were normal. But the negative perception of the patient did not translate to clinical recommendations.
Discrimination at the Doctor's Office
In August, a Boston physician made headlines — and sparked outrage — last year when she turned away patients weighing more than 200 pounds. While patients cried discrimination, the physician said she turns away heavy patients because her office is not equipped to handle them. Similarly, a 2011 survey by the South Florida Sentinel found that 14 of 105 area gynecologists refused to see obese patients, citing inadequate medical equipment as a reason.
While some doctors might be physically ill-equipped to treat heavy patients, medical students lack the training to do so, researchers from Wake Forest University reported in the journal Teaching and Learning in Medicine last week.
Researchers analyzed literature surrounding obesity-related educational programs from the National Institute’s of Health PubMed database from 1966 to 2010. Of the 208 articles found, five addressed ways to educate medical students on obesity treatment. Only two of the five addressed medical students’ anti-fat bias toward obese patients.
“Medical students are surrounded by the same environment that everyone is in this country, a culture of idealized images of physical attractiveness in which thin is good and fat is bad,” said lead author Mara Vitolins, Dr.PH, RD. "We just aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching our students evidence-based methods of intervention and care for our obese patients."
TELL US: Have you faced health care discrimination? Share your experiences in the comments.
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