Two out of five medical students have bias against obese people

Future doctors may have to learn more than how to diagnose and treat health conditions.

A recent study from researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center suggests that medical students need to learn how to be more tolerant of people with obesity, too.

Two out of five students tend to have an unconscious bias against the overweight and obese – a prejudice that can affect quality of care and the trusted patient-doctor relationship, researchers say.

'Anti-fat' culture

Previous research on the subject has shown that doctors tend to share the same bias that the general population has against fat people. They are also less likely to respect these patients and more likely to assume that these people won't follow treatment plans, said David Miller, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and lead study author.

"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," Miller said.

The study included more than 300 third-year medical students at a school in the U.S. from 2008 to 2011. The students represented a diverse population based on where they were from – at least 25 states and 12 countries were represented.

Using a computer program called the Weight Implicit Association Test (IAT), the students' unconscious preferences for fat or skinny individuals were measured, and the students also took a survey about their conscious weight preferences.

Results showed that 39 percent of of the medical students had a moderate to strong unconscious anti-fat bias. Seventeen percent had a moderate to strong anti-thin bias, and less than 25 percent were aware of the biases.

Changing perceptions

Addressing these biases first requires an acknowledgement of their existence, Miller said. At Wake Forest Baptist, all family medicine students must complete the IAT and also participate in a class discussion related to the concept of personal biases.

"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.

Source: Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

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