To fight obesity, end physician fat-shaming, bias

feet on scale weighing
Education can change physicians' attitudes toward obesity, a new study finds. (Rostislav_Sedlacek/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

A new study homes in on a tactic to help curb obesity: eliminating physician bias against patients who are overweight.

An educational initiative at Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine in California reduced medical students’ negative attitudes toward people with obesity, according to research published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Researchers hope the finding will translate into better outcomes for patients struggling with weight issues, especially with U.S. obesity rates exceeding 37% of the population.

Physicians’ bias regarding weight has an impact on patients, and those who pick up on fat-shaming attitudes are less inclined to go to the doctor. In addition, physicians can miss serious conditions when they assume patient symptoms are attributed to their weight.

RELATED: Fat-shaming can keep obese patients away from the doctor’s office

Educators at the osteopathic school initiated a new curriculum on obesity, which reduced physician bias by 7%. The researchers hope that shifting physicians’ attitude that patients’ obesity is due to individual responsibility to seeing it as a treatable condition could slow decades of rising obesity rates. They drew a parallel to the medical community’s changing attitude about mental illnesses and hope that translates to obesity. The school plans to expand its curriculum to an online platform so it is available to other medical schools and residency programs.

“We know there are economic, cultural, political and environmental elements causing this problem, yet our approach to treatment puts sole responsibility on the patient’s behavior,” Michael Clearfield, D.O., the school’s dean, said in an announcement. “It’s not unlike the way we treated depression 40 years ago. Only, instead of telling people to ‘get over it’, we say, ‘just eat right and exercise.’”

RELATED: Overweight doctors can’t ignore patients’ obesity issues

The medical school launched the curriculum in 2012 and measured medical students’ attitudes about obesity on the Fat Phobia Scale, which identifies biased beliefs in stereotypes, such as that obese people are lazy or have poor self-control. Students then received education about the causes of and treatments for obesity, with follow-up testing on their knowledge and attitudes toward obesity for each year of medical school. Those who completed the program significantly reduced their bias by an average of 7%.

Patients who pick up physicians’ negative attitudes can feel embarrassed and unwelcome, so they can stop following medical advice and even stop doctor visits, Clearfield said.