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Doctors’ Bias Against Obese Confirmed

If you’re overweight or obese, you may have had the experience of not getting the attention you need at medical visits. A recent Journal of Academic Medicine study confirms why (Time/Health and Family online, “Medical students may already be biased against obese patients” by Alexandra Sifferlin, 5/24/13). Yes, there’s bias against you, but that’s no excuse for not getting the medical care you require and deserve.

The study “shows that two out of five medical students have a subconscious bias against obese people…and that this way of thinking can appear before doctors even start to treat patients.” The study involved explicit bias, which occurs when people are aware of their prejudice, and implicit bias, which occurs when they’re not. “Based on the results, 39% of the students had a moderate to strong subconscious bias against the overweight, and less than 25% of the students were aware of their bias.” A February Journal of Preventive Medicine study found that “the majority of doctors believed obesity is caused by factors that can be controlled by the obese individual, and therefore were preventable.” Sadly, only 19% of doctors cited genetics as a cause of obesity when more and more research is pointing to heredity being a major determinant.

Whether you’re thin, fat, or in between, these conclusions should cause you concern. If medical bias doesn’t affect you specifically, it most likely affects someone close to you—a relative, friend, or co-worker. You should be outraged that obese people may not get the care they deserve and want to correct the situation. As a parent of an obese child, you can raise the subject of weight bias with your child’s doctors, citing the statistics above. As a partner or spouse of an obese adult, you can encourage him/her to speak up. Sure, that may cause some discomfort, but I’m sure you can do it in a way that minimizes offense and maximizes your obvious caring for someone you love.

If you’re an overweight or obese individual, it’s time to stop feeling ashamed and get down to the business of standing up for yourself. Consider your practitioners and who among them appears weight biased. Switch practitioners if need be by getting recommendations from health professionals who are not weight prejudiced. Raise the subject with those who are. They might get defensive or embarrassed, but so what. Your rights and health are more important than their feelings. Explain that you only want to be treated fairly and effectively. Talk about the complexity of the subject and educate practitioners when need be. Most importantly, make sure you don’t buy into fat prejudice yourself!