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Medical Students Already Biased Against Obesity, Study Finds

Update Date: May 24, 2013 01:28 PM EDT

In a previous study, researchers discovered that primary care physicians appeared to be less empathetic to their heavier patients in comparison to their slimmer ones. This study measured level of care based on the rapport between doctors and patients of different sizes. In a new study, researchers found that this subconscious bias might have started as early as medical school. According to the researchers from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, medical students had a subconscious bias towards obesity, which could hinder doctor and patient relationships in the future. The findings found that two out of five medical students were biased against obese people.

The study started in 2008 and lasted for three years. The data compiled was from 300 medical students in their third year at a southeastern medical school. The researchers utilized the Weight Implicit Association Test (IAT) in order to measure any biases. The test presents the medical students with positive words, such as happiness and laughter, and measures the response times the students had when the words were accompanied with pictures of skinny and obese people. The research team found that 39 percent of the medical students had moderate to severe subconscious biases toward obesity. Less than 25 percent of the students were aware of their biases.

The researchers believe that these findings are important in grooming medical students into becoming better doctors by making them more aware of their biases. By acknowledging the fact that one might be biased against obese patients, one can use preventative measures to ensure that all patients get treated the same way. Previous studies have found that doctors who are biased against obese patients tended to have a weaker relationship with them. Obese patients were then less inclined to listen or follow recommendations provided by their doctors. Another study found that overweight doctors tended to avoid talking about weight loss with their patients. By addressing these issues, doctors can correct these biases and treat patients with the same level of concern regardless of body size.

The study was published in the Journal of Academic Medicine

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