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Study Reports Doctors Are Nicer to Thin Patients and Less Empathetic to Heavier Ones

Update Date: Apr 24, 2013 03:27 PM EDT

Although doctors provide the same level of care to all their patients, a study reports that doctors might actually be nicer to their thinner patients. The study, which was conducted by researchers from John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, discovered that doctors' bedside manners change depending on the weight of the patient. The research did not find any differences between the level of treatment and care administered to patients of all sizes.

The research team observed 39 primary care doctors and their relationships and rapport with 208 patients. Based from their analyses, the researchers found that physicians were less empathetic to their overweight patients. Doctors tended to use less emotional rapport with the heavier patients whereas thinner and fit patients were treated nicer. The research team used recordings of conversations between doctors and patients seeking care for high blood pressure. After computing an overall analysis of personal information, diagnosis, and treatment options, the researchers compared the different kinds of rapport the doctors used with different types of patients. Although the level of medical treatment did not differ, the researchers believe that the differences in bedside manner can be as important as actual treatment and thus, doctors should be more aware of their biases.

"Bonding and empathy are essential to the patient-physician relationship," The lead researcher, Professor Kimberly Gudzune stated. "When physicians express more empathy...patients are more likely to adhere to medical recommendations and respond to behavior-change counseling, all vital elements in helping overweight and obese patients lose weight and improve health. Without the rapport, you could be cheating the patients who need that engagement the most."

The researchers could not find why certain doctors were less likely to be nice to heavier patients, but they theorized that it could be due to the factor of respect. The researchers explained that doctors might be nicer to thinner patients because the doctors respect that these patients care for their health, which would be evident in their physical appearance. Although some people might be naturally skinny and might not necessarily be healthy, doctors assume that overweight and obese people are generally unhealthy due to eating habits or sedentary lifestyles.

Regardless, the study recommends that doctors should not be biased and that they should treat all patients with the same level of empathetic concern. 

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