Two out of five medical students have an unconscious bias against obese people, a new study found.
The study authors, from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, noted the anti-fat stigma is a significant barrier to the treatment of obesity. They concluded that teaching medical students to recognize this bias is necessary to improve care for the millions of Americans who are overweight or obese.
"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," study lead author David Miller, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said in a center news release.
"Previous research has shown that on average, physicians have a strong anti-fat bias similar to that of the general population. Doctors are more likely to assume that obese individuals won't follow treatment plans, and they [doctors] are less likely to respect obese patients than average weight patients."
The study, which took place over the course of three years, involved more than 300 third-year medical students. Although all of the students attended a medical school in the southeastern United States from 2008 through 2011, they were originally from many different parts of the United States as well as 12 other countries.
Using a computer program called the Weight Implicit Association Test, the researchers were able to measure the participants' unconscious preferences for fat or thin people. The medical students also completed a survey to determine if they were aware of any weight bias they had.
The study revealed that 39 percent of the medical students had a moderate to strong unconscious anti-fat bias. Seventeen percent had a moderate to strong anti-thin bias. The researchers added that less than 25 percent of the students were aware of their 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," Dr. Miller said. "Medical schools should address weight bias as part of a comprehensive obesity curriculum."
The study was published online in the Journal of Academic Medicine.