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When you walk into the doctor’s office, whether it’s for a check-up or a medical malady, you would like to feel like you’re in good hands and that you’re getting the best treatment possible. However, new research is beginning to show that people can get a different experience when they walk into the door just by what they look like, weight. Research is shining a light on bias and how it can affect patient care as well as ways researchers and doctors have tried to remedy these issues.
Weight is a large point of stereotyping in the doctor’s office. For instance, in a study done by Dr. Kimberly Gudzune, MD, MPH, physicians are found to be less likely to try to build up emotional rapport. 50% of the primary care physicians report that they view patients with obesity as awkward, unattractive, and not receptive to medical treatment (ACP Internist). When doing research on bias in the doctor’s office, I found that obesity was the only category where doctors explicitly, or openly, expressed prejudice. Currently, one in three Americans are obese, and the number has been growing through the decades. Doctors, however, are not adjusting their attitudes nor their equipment available to help their patients (New York Times). Doctors rarely see outside of the issue of weight. For instance, Patty Nece, an obese patient from Alexandria, VA came into the orthopedist because her hip was aching. The doctor never examined her and diagnosed her with “obesity pain.” It had actually turned out that Patty had progressive scoliosis, a condition that had nothing to do with obesity. On the other side, obese patients will often delay or cancel medical appointments in fear of being weighed or judged. Obese people are also much more prone to doctor shop, or go to more than three doctors in a two-year period. This is often attributed to the fact that obese people will often face much more judgmental and stigmatizing treatment than someone who is at a normal weight. There is a certain assumption that when one enters the doctor’s office, one will be getting the best care for their situation regardless of how they look coming in. This can keep obese patients from truly getting the help they need because of these open instances of fat prejudice.
Researchers are currently trying to find solutions to the issue of patient bias with some success. A study done by Green et al. shows that making doctors aware of their bias or prejudices makes them more likely to treat their patients with less bias (NCBI). Another technique called individualization encourages physicians to learn the names, faces, and personal information of each of their patients. That way, instead of filling in the blanks with stereotypes of obese people, doctors begin to see their patients as individuals. Physicians will more accurately diagnose and treat patients if they see them as individuals and not simply obese people. The difficulty with this latter method is that doctors are often pressed for time and have incomplete information. Because scientific research and physicians are more aware than ever of the potentially dangerous effects of bias, or prejudices, in the doctor’s office, there have been more steps taken to remedy this problem.
Human bias is a hard thing to overcome, especially because sometimes it is internalized, and people are not aware that they are biased. However, for physicians, this can prove to be detrimental to the outcome of patients’ health, especially for obese people. Luckily, with the advent of new research, doctors are becoming more aware of their personal prejudice against obese people and are working to find ways to lessen the effects of bias and to see patients as individuals.