Most would agree that the doctor’s office is no place for discrimination. Why, then, do we accept it in relation to body weight, size, and shape? Weight stigma is more common in the Doctor’s office than may be expected.
It is abhorrent enough that “people with obesity elicit negative feelings such as disgust, anger, blame and dislike” in the average citizen. However, research also indicates that “physicians and other healthcare professionals hold strong negative opinions about people with obesity .”
Weight Stigma in Medical Practices
While medical professionals are absolutely allowed to have their own opinions, however discriminatory, this cannot be allowed to overlap with the work they do. While many would likely say that their opinions do not impact their medical practice, research indicates differently.
Studies show that the “reported incidence of weight discrimination has increased by 66 percent since 1995 and is now on par with rates of racial discrimination, especially among overweight women .”
Not only that, “even those specializing in the field of obesity have been shown to both endorse and display weight bias at an alarming frequency .” One study found that “physicians viewed patients who were obese as less self-disciplined and more “annoying” and reported less desire to help them than to help thinner patients .”
Disturbingly, the number one most frequent source of weight stigma reported by women and the number two most frequent sources reported by men, were doctors .” These biases show up in many ways. Individuals have reported receiving inappropriate comments about their body and weight from doctors as well as negative assumptions.
One study learned that “physicians are more likely to recommend psychological counseling to heavier individuals, suggesting a belief that those who are overweight must also be unhappy .”
Weight stigma also exists in the physical barriers that people living in larger bodies experience at the doctor’s office, such as furniture and restroom facilities that do not accommodate their size.
Consequences of These Actions
The consequences of this discrimination are drastically damaging to those living in larger bodies, with one of the most impactful being an avoidance of seeking out medical care. Studies indicate that “obese women are less likely to seek recommended screening for some cancers .”
One article emphasizes that the “long-term result of avoidance and postponement of care is that people with obesity may present with more advanced, and thus more difficult to treat, conditions .”
Not only that, an individual that experiences discrimination may prematurely end their appointment and, therefore, “may not recall advice or instructions given by the provider, reducing adherence to prescribed treatment or self-care .”
In a field where individuals take a Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” it is unacceptable that the inability of a doctor to leave weight stigma outside of the office, or get rid of it in their minds altogether, would compromise an individual’s ability to receive necessary medical care without bias. The impacts of this shameful trend are damaging people’s lives and must change.
Resources: Phelan, S. M. et al. (2015). Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and patients with obesity. Obesity Reviews, 16:4.  Schvey, N. (2021). Weight bias in healthcare. AMA Journal of Ethics. Retrieved from https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/weight-bias-health-care/2010-04.  Puhl, R. M., Brownell, K. D. (2012). Confronting and coping with weight stigma: an investigation of overweight and obese adults. Obesity, 14:10.  Helb, M.R., Xu, J. (2001). Weighing the care: physician’s reactions to the size of a patient. International Journal of Obesity, 25.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
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Published January 27, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 27, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC