Physicians Share Society’s Weight Bias

Obese people may face a multitude of hardships – such as discrimination in the workplace – that arise from the societal stigma surrounding obesity.  Now, a study has shown that our general society’s strong “anti-fat bias” (as named by the researchers) is shared by many physicians. Researchers from the University of Washington and University of Virginia studied the anti-fat biases of almost 400,000 participants, 2000 of which were physicians. Using an internet-based test, they studied the implicit and explicit anti-fat bias of participants. The researchers found that all of the participants, including the MDs, reported strong preference for thin people rather than heavy people. Physicians who were underweight, of normal weight, and overweight showed a strong anti-fat bias, while obese MDs demonstrated a more moderate bias. Implicit attitudes about body weight were strong in both male and female physicians; however, female doctors had a significantly weaker implicit anti-fat bias than their male counterparts.

Overweight patients are particularly sensitive to the opinions of their doctors when it comes to their body weight. Recent research showed that physicians play a large role in a patient’s perception of their weight, as well as their decision to try to lose weight. The study found that patients who are told by a doctor that they are overweight are 8 times more likely to perceive themselves as overweight.  With such a strong influence, it will be important to determine how anti-fat attitudes translate in clinical behavior, and whether implicit weight bias is correlated to how overweight patients experience health care interactions. At The Obesity Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting, William Dietz, MD, PhD, spoke about the healthcare that obese patients receive. Dietz said providers spend less time with obese patient and have less discussion with them. Obese patients are more likely to skip or delay services including cancer screenings, which is especially dangerous since obesity is a risk factor for some cancers. Lead author of the “anti-fat bias” study, Janice Sabin of the University of Washington, said: “It is not surprising that implicit and explicit weight bias exists among doctors, similar to the general population. It is important for physicians to be aware that this bias exists and to ensure that personal bias does not have a negative impact on the doctor-patient relationship.”

Dr Marina Kurian, Medical Director of the NYU Langone Weight Management Program, spoke with us about the study. She told us: “This study highlights the underlying bias in our society towards obese people. This bias is pervasive and not just limited to lay people. Even physicians, who are educated to the causes of obesity and the issues that so many patients face,  exhibit this bias. The study helps to promote awareness amongst everyone and particularly with physicians who subconsciously may be avoiding critical discussions with their obese patients.”

Related Reading:

Obesity stigma can be hard to overcome. An earlier study demonstrated that overweight women experience obesity stigma even after losing weight and maintaining a normal body weight. You can read about the study here.

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