Show empathy to help obese patients, doctor says


Doctors need to show empathy for obese patients and use a whole-person approach to provide them with quality care.

That approach will go a long way to help obese patients who have likely encountered weight bias from healthcare providers, according to Colony Fugate, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences. Fugate spoke Monday at OMED 16, the American Osteopathic Association’s annual medical conference held in California.

A past study showed that nearly 70 percent of obese patients have experienced weight bias from a physician. The result is that many patients avoid medical care, Fugate said. Studies have found the consequences of so-called fat shaming of patients includes poor rapport, decreased respect, less time spent in appointments and avoidance of some health screenings.

It's time doctors realize that obesity is not a matter of a patient's willpower, but a complex medical condition, he said. "Confronting our attitudes toward this disease is an important facet of providing high-quality care for patients,” Fugate said. "As an osteopathic physician, I encourage my colleagues to see the person inside the patient first and deal with the medical concern that brought them to the office, rather than assuming the patient's excess weight is their primary issue." Patients who talked about fat-shaming by physicians said that is a common occurrence when doctors assume health problems are caused by excess weight.

Doctors can reduce weight bias by realizing patients may have had negative experiences with health professionals and showing them empathy, he said. Doctors can ask permission to discuss a patient’s weight and acknowledge if the person has tried to lose weight. They must find appropriate ways to talk to patients about obesity and treat it as a chronic disease.