When Weight Gets In The Way: Overweight Physicians and Their Patients

overweight doctorWhen your doctor advises you to shed a few pounds, do you buy a pair of gym shoes and look for a healthy diet plan? According to this recent New York Times article, the answer may depend on your doctor’s lifestyle as much as your own. Studies show that doctors lose credibility when they carry extra weight, especially when they are advising healthy lifestyle changes for their patients.

Societal Bias Hurts Outcomes

It has long been known that bias against overweight individuals is widely prevalent in society, and is one of the last socially accepted prejudices. In surveys, participants routinely judge overweight people to be less industrious, less trustworthy, and more lazy than their normal weight counterparts. But more recent research also shows that this bias extends to people’s evaluation of a doctor’s professional competency. Regardless of the weight of the patient, patients were more likely to leave overweight doctors to seek care from another provider. Additionally, they were less likely to follow medical advice given by overweight doctors.

An Awkward Conversation

To some patients, advice to lose weight may seem hypocritical when it comes from another overweight person. It may also seem that since the doctor is unable to manage his or her own weight, the doctor’s advice may not work for the patient. In any event, patients of overweight doctors are less likely to lose weight than patients of normal-weight doctors. But there may be more to this finding that meets the eye. According to this Time Magazine article, overweight doctors may change their interactions with overweight patients, based on conscious or subconscious discomfort addressing the subject. Overweight doctors were less likely to advise overweight patients to lose weight, more likely to prescribe weight loss medications, and less likely to discuss lifestyle changes, like diet and exercise.

Better Communication, Better Results

So what can overweight doctors do to improve patient retention and compliance? First of all, making healthy lifestyle changes in their own lives is a good place to start. Unfortunately, physicians have the same struggles and blind spots about body size as their patients do. Physicians consistently underestimate their own weights and estimate their body sizes to be smaller than those of their patients with equal body mass indices. In the interim, studies suggest that doctors should be open and honest with their patients about their own weight loss struggles. When a doctor tells a patient that he or she has the same struggles with snacks, busy lifestyle, aches and pains, or lack of exercise as the patient does, the doctor builds the patient’s confidence, creates a team approach to health, and shows compassion and empathy to which patients usually respond favorably.

The best approach for overweight doctors may be to combine both of these recommendations. When doctors improve their own health, they improve their ability to treat patients and they improve their patient’s impressions of their medical abilities. By being open and honest with patients and sharing their experiences and struggles, physicians can use their own healthy lifestyles to improve patient health. When doctors and patients work together, everyone benefits.