Physician viewpoint: We must stop blaming patients for unhealthy lifestyle choices

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Physicians must abandon the mindset that patients who practice unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, are to blame for their illnesses or cancer, Monica Bhargava, MD, an Oakland, Calif.-based pulmonary and critical care physician, wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Post.

"Our culture's tendency to frame certain illnesses as character defects, as opposed to complex phenomena with genetic and psychosocial components, is widespread and carries serious consequences," Dr. Bhargava wrote.

She said smokers are "shamed more vocally" for having lung cancer than other patients who develop diseases strongly linked to patient behavior or lifestyle. Dr. Bhargava also said she's witnessed how this stigma alters the care pulmonary patients receive at her practice.

Physicians have a responsibility to promote healthy behaviors and offer patients help to quit harmful habits, she acknowledged.

"But if our patients receive a cancer diagnosis, we need to care for them with a spirit of unconditional empathy and advocacy," Dr. Bhargava concluded. "Our patients are more than what they have ingested or inhaled."

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