A new study suggests that doctors don't have as strong an emotional connection with overweight patients compared to slimmer ones.
This bias might have real health effects, researchers at Johns Hopkins University said. Overweight or obese patients who experience bias may simply ignore advice to change their lifestyle to lose weight, the team said, and it may make them more likely to be dissatisfied with their care.
"If you aren't establishing a rapport with your patients, they may be less likely to adhere to your recommendations to change their lifestyles and lose weight," study leader Dr. Kimberly Gudzune, an assistant professor in the division of general internal medicine at the university's medical school, said in a university news release.
For their study, the team analysed recordings of visits that more than 200 patients with high blood pressure made to 39 primary-care doctors. Weight made no difference in the amount of time doctors spent with patients or in the weight counselling they provided, the researchers found.
However, the doctors used more words and phrases that showed concern, reassurance and validation of patients' feelings when they were dealing with people of normal weight, compared to those who were overweight or obese, according to the study, which was published online recently in the journal Obesity.
Patients more likely to follow guidelines
Previous research has shown that patients are more likely to follow medical recommendations if there is a sense of empathy and bonding from their doctors.
"Some studies have linked those bonding behaviours with patient satisfaction and adherence, while other studies have found that patients were more likely to change their dietary habits, increase exercise and attempt to lose weight when their physicians expressed more empathy," Gudzune said. "Without that rapport, you could be cheating the patients who need that engagement the most."
Gudzune said doctors should be mindful of negative attitudes and make an effort to bond with overweight and obese patients.
"Patients want information and treatment, but they also need the emotional support and attention that can help them through the challenges that accompany weight loss and the establishment of a healthy lifestyle," she said.
The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases outlines the health risks of being overweight.