Three Ways Healthcare Fails People with Obesity

Healthcare fails people with obesity every day, serving up harsh judgments and substandard care. Any person who is severely affected can tell you about it, but few people stop to listen. The result is an ever growing burden of diseases that stem from this chronic disease largely ignored by our healthcare system.

Sara Kirk and colleagues at Dalhousie University have taken the time to listen in a disciplined way, using qualitative research methods to interview people with obesity, healthcare practitioners, and policymakers. In a brilliant manuscript just published in Qualitative Health Research, Kirk identifies three themes that show how healthcare fails people with obesity.

  1. Wielding Blame. The pervasive theme of blame serves as a tool of power. It keeps people with obesity in a weak position as they seek healthcare from providers and respect in relationships. The language of blame is everywhere: “all you have to do is get control of yourself” and “nobody can fix it but you.”
  2. Tension between Prevention and Treatment. Frustrated by the nature of obesity as a chronic disease, clinicians and policymakers barely even give lip service to treatment or management of obesity because they see it as futile. Resources and efforts instead are devoted to prevention. One professional summed it up well, saying, “I haven’t given up on helping people get to more of a better body weight, but you don’t waste a lot of your emotion on it anymore, you know? Because you’re not going to get anywhere.”
  3. Dysfunctional Medical Dialog. Policymakers and clinicians are resistant to “medicalizing” obesity and dealing with it as a disease. So patients who need care find themselves unable to get any validation of their needs. The dialog never progresses to medical care. Practitioners are only prepared to treat a diagnosed disease. Said one policymaker, “I see a risk of taking us down a more medicalized road.”

Commenting on these findings, Arya Sharma says:

Clearly, it is work like this that is essential to understanding the current discourse (or rather lack of it) about obesity and finding strategies that do justice to those living with obesity.

We agree.

Click here to read the study and here to read more from Sharma.

Kinzua Bridge, photograph © cngodles / flickr

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