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Do Doctors Show Less Empathy Toward Obese And Overweight Patients?

Apr 30, 2013 04:25 PM EDT

Physicians build less rapport with obese and overweight patients, according to a study published in the medical journal, Obesity.

The study, which looked at 39 primary care doctors and 208 of their patients, compared the patients’ BMI with doctors’ ability to show empathy, concern and understanding, regardless of the medical topic discussed.

Examples of empathy were defined as use of empathetic words and phrases that showed reassurance and validation of patients’ feelings, such as “I can see how frustrated you are by your slow progress – anyone would be.”

The researchers did not find a difference in the quantity of physicians’ medical questions, advice, counseling or treatment regimen discussions; however, as lead researcher Kimberly A. Gudzune, M.D., of John Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained in a press release, a lack of emotional rapport with one’s doctor can play a key role in a patient’s likelihood to adhere to his or her doctor’s advice.

“If patients see their primary care doctors as allies, I think they will be more successful in complying with our advice,” Gudzune said. “I hear from patients all the time about how they resent feeling judged negatively because of their weight. Yes, doctors need to be medical advisers, but they also have the opportunity to be advocates to support their patients through changes in their lives.”

Gudzune said the results did not come as a surprise given that studies have shown that physicians may hold negative attitudes toward obese patients.

She stressed that physicians should be mindful of any negative attitudes and make an effort to bond and then spend time with overweight and obese patients, especially when discussing psychosocial and lifestyle issues.

“Patients want information and treatment, but they also need the emotional support and attention that can help them through the challenges that accompany weight loss and the establishment of a healthy lifestyle,” Gudzune said.

Other John Hopkins researchers involved in the study included Mary Catherine Beach, M.D., Debra L. Roter, Dr.PH., and Lisa A.Cooper, M.D.

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