4 Steps to Combating Weight Bias Among Physicians

According to a recent study in Obesity, patients with obesity are 52 percent more likely to "doctor shop," or switch both primary care and specialty physicians frequently, because of perceived physician bias and overall negative interactions with healthcare providers. These negative interactions come with a high price — not only does switching physicians compromise care through a lack of continuity, but these patients are more likely to end up in the emergency department and incur higher healthcare costs.

"When patients with obesity encounter bias, they're more likely to avoid interaction with physicians entirely, making the problem worse," says Ted Kyle, advocacy committee chair of the Obesity Society.

"If the doctor blames you for being sick, how eager would you be to seek help?" he says.

Mr. Kyle offers four recommendations for combating weight bias in the hospital.

1. Train physicians to recognize and combat their own biases. Mr. Kyle acknowledges that everyone harbors weight bias, and physicians are most likely less biased than the general population against overweight or obese people because of their knowledge of the medical reasons behind obesity. However, any bias physicians have against patients with obesity has the potential to seriously compromise care, and should be addressed.

"[Physicians] need to be aware their bias exists," says Mr. Kyle. He recommends "try[ing] to understand their experience from their perspectives," while remembering that obesity is a medical issue.

"Obesity is just like any other chronic disease," he says. "If another disease like cancer had the same preconceptions and stigma, we'd all recognize it would compromise care — it's the same with obesity."

2. Ensure facility and equipment can accommodate patients with obesity. Mr. Kyle recommends an internal audit of hospital facilities and equipment to ensure a patient with obesity can be seen and treated easily, comfortably and without embarrassment. A hospital performing obesity surgery, for example, should ensure that operating tables and recovery room beds are large enough for the patients.

An unaccommodating examination room or hospital bed is "nonverbal communication that makes it clear to these patients that they are not welcome," says Mr. Kyle.

3. Remember the patient is a customer. As patient satisfaction becomes increasingly important to hospital reimbursements, it will become increasingly important for hospitals to ensure each patient feels welcomed and cared for while at the hospital. "Patients really are customers for hospitals," says Mr. Kyle.

Physician bias against obese and overweight patients can create a negative atmosphere and hurt patient satisfaction. "Hospitals need to create a culture of respect" to establish truly patient-centered care and keep patients coming back, he says.

4. Utilize resources from The Obesity Society and Obesity Action Coalition. These two organizations have put together resources for both administrators and physicians to help reduce weight bias in the hospital. The resources are intended to "enable physicians to treat obesity like any other disease," says Mr. Kyle.

•    A Guide for Healthcare Providers Working with Individuals Affected by Obesity
•    Treat Obesity Seriously

"It's important to deal with obesity as health issue, and set aside any feelings the provider may have that would interferes with a patient's treatment," says Mr. Kyle. "It's definitely something that needs to be treated seriously."

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