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Touro medical school program cuts physician bias against obesity, study shows

Cutting down on negative physician bias towards obesity could yield better treatment, patient outcomes.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

Touro University medical students-Photo courtesy <a href=""> Touro University </a>Touro University medical students-Photo courtesy Touro University

Research published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Medicine suggests an educational program at Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine is cutting down on negative physician bias towards obesity, a change that could yield better patient outcomes, the AOA announced Tuesday.

The obesity rate in America had plateaued until 2000 when it jumped from 15 percent to 23. Since then, the rate has climbed to between 37 and 38 percent.

Launched in 2012, the program measures medical students' attitudes on the Fat Phobia Scale, which identifies biased beliefs in stereotypes like obese people are "lazy" and have "poor self-control". Students are then educated on the causes and treatments of obesity, and follow up testing each year of medical school gauges their knowledge and attitudes. The AOA research showed a seven percent reduction in bias for each student who completed the program.

[Also: Reversing physician burnout requires total change in the culture of medicine]

"We know there are economic, cultural, political and environmental elements causing this problem, yet our approach to treatment puts sole responsibility on the patient's behavior," said physician Michael Clearfield, Dean of Touro University's College of Osteopathic Medicine.  "It's not unlike the way we treated depression 40 years ago. Only, instead of telling people to 'get over it', we say, 'just eat right and exercise.'"

Changing this bias in physicians may well resonate positively with patients and change outcomes, Clearfield said, because patients pick up on their doctor's negativity and may feel embarrassed or unwelcome. They may stop following medical advice or not go to appointments at all, negatively affecting their health.

Beyond patient perception, this bias can also affect a doctor's behavior too. "Sometimes physicians don't believe that obese people will take care of themselves, so they spend less time with them and, as a result, they miss things in their examinations," Clearfield said.

Thanks to the results of the study surrounding the obesity program, Touro plans to expand the curriculum making it available online and to other medical schools and residency programs. They eventually plan to analyze its impact on patient outcomes, the AOA said.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn

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