Nearly 40 Percent of Medical Students Are Biased Against Overweight Patients

Thirty-nine percent had a moderate to strong bias against overweight people, and 25 percent of them did not realize they were biased

Will Richardson

Individuals who are overweight not only have to deal with discrimination from society but also from their doctors, according to new research. Thirty-nine percent of medical students had a moderate to strong bias against overweight patients, and for two out of three of those students that bias was subconscious, NPR reports.*

Researchers gave third-year medical students Harvard’s Implicit Association Test on weight. The test is designed to get at people’s subconscious biases by measuring how long it takes for them to associate a positive word, such as “love,” “laughter” or “pleasure,” with a drawing of a person who is either thin or obese. Psychologists have shown that people’s subconscious biases affect how fast they can associate a positive trait with someone they think poorly of.

Many of the medical students—300 individuals from 25 different states and 12 countries outside of the U.S.—did turn out to be prejudiced against overweight people. Although that 39 percent had a bias against heavier patients, just 17 percent reacted with bias against thin people. How doctors think about obesity may impact the quality of care they give to overweight patients and how they treat them clinically. Time reportson the implications:

Acknowledging such bias could be critical for helping doctors to better treat obesity among their patients; in another study published in February in the journal Preventive Medicine, researchers documented the close relationship between how doctors think about obesity and how they treat it. That study found that the majority of doctors believed obesity is caused by factors that can be controlled by the obese individual, and therefore preventable. Of the 500 primary care doctors surveyed, 88% said overeating was a significant driver of obesity, 62% reported restaurant food and fast food were important contributors to obesity, and 60% said sugar-sweetened beverages were a major factor contributing to obesity. Very few doctors — only 19% — blamed genetics as a cause for obesity.

On the flipside, however, overweight doctors themselves seem to have a different kind of bias against obesity: they tend not to discuss it. As Time reported last year:

Compared with overweight doctors, slim physicians were more confident in their ability to dispense advice about diet and exercise to heavier patients, and 72% believed that they should be models of healthy weight for their patients. Only 56% of heavy doctors said the same.

*This sentence was updated for clarity.

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