High Obesity Bias Found Among Med School Students
May 24, 2013

Many Med School Students Biased Against Obese People

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Commonly the butt of jokes and victims of bullying, obese people often don´t have it easy compared to thinner Americans, and a new study shows that even the most educated among the population can have a bias against them.

According to a new report in the“¯Journal of Academic Medicine, two out of five medical students are unknowingly biased against obese people.

"Bias can affect clinical care and the doctor-patient relationship, and even a patient's willingness or desire to go see their physician, so it is crucial that we try to deal with any bias during medical school," said lead author Dr. David Miller, associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. "Previous research has shown that on average, physicians have a strong anti-fat bias similar to that of the general population.”

“Doctors are more likely to assume that obese individuals won't follow treatment plans, and they are less likely to respect obese patients than average weight patients," Miller added.

Using Harvard University´s Implicit Association Test (IAT)“¯for weight, the study researchers found that one than one-third of third-year medical students had a strong bias against obese people, while only 17 percent had an anti-thin bias. Two-thirds of participants said they were unaware of their bias.

The weight-specific IAT is designed to determine people's subconscious biases by measuring how long it takes for them to correlate positive words, such as "love," "laughter" or "pleasure," with an image of a person who is either thin or obese. Other IAT tests include looking for bias with respect to race, age or disability.

The study included 300 participants from a North Carolina medical school who were third-year students between 2008 and 2011. Geographically, the students represented 25 different states and 13 different countries, including the United States.

"Because anti-fat stigma is so prevalent and a significant barrier to the treatment of obesity, teaching medical students to recognize and mitigate this bias is crucial to improving the care for the two-thirds of American adults who are now overweight or obese," Miller said.

"Medical schools should address weight bias as part of a comprehensive obesity curriculum."

The study did not specifically suggest how teaching strategies might address bias, but acknowledging its existence is an important first step, Miller said.

This latest study is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that overweight people receive different treatment from healthcare providers than thinner individuals. One study published in February in the journal“¯Preventive Medicine, found that over half of doctors said that obesity is preventable and caused by factors that can be controlled by the individual.

Of the 500 primary care physicians included in the study,“¯88 percent said that overeating was a major cause of obesity, 62 percent said restaurant and fast food were significant contributors to obesity, and 60 percent said sugary beverages were a large factor contributing to obesity. By comparison, only 19 percent identified genetics as a significant cause of obesity.

Another study released this week found that physicians are less likely to empathize with overweight and obese patients.