Medical Students: Your Prejudice Is Showing

First-year medical students express more explicit bias against people with obesity than they do against minorities, gays, lesbians, and poor people. Say the authors of this new study in Obesity:

This relatively high level of explicit weight bias may result from low internal or external pressure to appear unbiased against obese people. These data suggest that medical students, who in most cases hold egalitarian beliefs, believe it is acceptable to hold negative attitudes about obese patients. Indeed, obesity is an independent risk factor for chronic disease, so some medical students may blur the line between dislike for obesity (the disease which may contribute to poor patient outcomes) and obese patients. However, in one qualitative study of medical students, obese people were identified as the most common target of derogatory humor, supporting the supposition that explicit negativity toward obese people is acceptable among healthcare providers in a way that race and other prejudices are not.

This finding is especially troubling because it points to a factor that will make obesity worse. A new study to be published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology finds that people with excess weight exposed to weight stigma will consume more calories and have less control over their diet than those who are not.

Add that study to a long list of research findings that demonstrate how weight prejudice makes obesity worse. Prejudice leads people to avoid healthcare, to seek care as a last resort in an emergency department, to switch doctors more frequently, and to be less successful in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

Two thirds of the population have excess weight or obesity. How can someone who expresses open hostility toward such a large segment of patients — who will need their care — make the mistake of going into the medical profession?

How can medical schools admit them?

Click here to read the study in Obesity, here to read the study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and here to read more in Salon.

Class of 1935, photograph © Stanford Medical History Center / flickr

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