Nov. 7, 2012 at 6:49 PM ET
By Trevor Stokes
Doctors have similar levels of bias against people who are overweight as the general public, a new study says.
Additionally, physicians are likely not aware of their own biases, the study showed.
"The most striking thing is that physicians are like others in society, and hold negative attitudes about weight," said study researcher Janice Sabin, an assistant professor at the University of Washington. "Our study did not look at behavior, so we don't know whether or not this actually affects the patient-provider relationship," she added.
Previous research identified weight biases in doctors, but the new study found that their level of bias is similar to that of the public.
Sabin and her colleagues included nearly 360,000 participants in their study, including 2,284 medical doctors. The researchers used a computer test designed to measure both explicit biases, of which people are aware, and implicit biases, which people do not recognize they hold.
Results showed that female doctors were less biased against obese people than male doctors. "Even though there was a slight difference, bias was strong among both men and women," Sabin told MyHealthNewsDaily.
Obese doctors were generally more sympathetic to overweight people, the study also found.
Weight bias could affect the nearly two-thirds of people in the U.S. who are overweight or obese, according to researchers.
Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, said the study underscores the need to educate doctors about weight bias, and provide them with strategies to reduce bias in their interactions with patients.
"Weight bias jeopardizes patients' emotional and physical health, and that some patients may even avoid future health care because of weight bias in the health care setting," said Puhl, who was not involved in the study.
Weight bias can show up in many ways — doctors may use derogatory language, blame health problems on weight and even deny certain medical procedures based on weight, Puhl said.
But patients have several options if they feel stigmatized by health care providers. They can express their concerns to doctors, and should be specific and assertive in what they would like to see change, Puhl said.
Bringing along a friend or family member to an appointment can also help. "If patients are reluctant to speak to their provider, or feel that attempts to do so have been unsuccessful, patients can alternatively voice their concerns to the Patient Advocate at their health center," Puhl said.
Sabin noted that the study did not demonstrate that overweight or obese patients are actually treated differently by their doctors.
"Just because a person has bias does not mean that they are going to discriminate, and that's something important that I always try to emphasize," Sabin said.
The study was funded by Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization that examines unspoken biases, and is published online today (Nov. 7) in the journal PLoS ONE.
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