A recent, 358-person survey conducted by researchers at Yale University (and published in the International Journal of Obesity) suggested that patients may be less likely to follow the medical advice of overweight and obese physicians. Survey respondents were 57% female, 70% Caucasian, 51% had BMIs in the normal or underweight category (31% overweight and 17% obese), and were an average age of 37 years old.
Respondents rated overweight and obese physicians as less credible than normal weight doctors, and stated that they would be less likely to follow advice (including guidance about diet, exercise, smoking cessation, preventive health screenings, and medication compliance) from such physicians. Although credibility and trust scores differed between the hypothetical overweight and obese providers and normal weight colleagues, the respondents predicted less of a difference between them in terms of empathy and bedside manner. Respondents said they’d be more likely to switch physicians based on their weight alone. There was no less bias against overweight and obese physicians found in respondents who were themselves overweight or obese.
The study authors note that this survey is the first of its kind – assessing potential weight bias against physicians by patients of different weights. Previous studies (by Puhl, Heuer, and others) have documented weight bias against patients by physicians.
While the study has some significant limitations (such as the respondents being disproportionately Caucasian, thin, and female), I think it raises some interesting questions about weight bias and physicians’ ability to influence patients to adopt healthier lifestyles.
Considering the expansion of pay-for-performance measures (where physicians receive higher compensation from Medicare/Medicaid when their patients achieve certain health goals -such as improved blood sugar levels), being overweight or obese could reduce practice profit margins. If patients are less likely to follow advice from overweight or obese doctors, then it stands to reason that patients’ health outcomes could suffer along with the doctors’ income.
I’m certainly not suggesting that CMS monitor physician waist circumferences in an attempt to improve patient compliance with healthy lifestyle choices (Oh no, did I just give the bureaucrats a new regulatory idea?), but rather that physicians redouble their efforts to practice what they preach as part of a commitment to being good clinicians.
Some will say that the problem here is not expanding provider waistlines, but bias against the overweight and obese. While I agree that weight has little to do with intellectual competence, it does have to do with disease risk. Normalizing and destigmatizing unhealthiness is not the way to solve the weight bias problem. We know instinctively that carrying around a lot of extra pounds is damaging to our health. It’s important to show grace and kindness to one another as we join together on the same health journey – a struggle to make good lifestyle choices in a challenging environment that tempts us to eat poorly and cease exercising.
To doctors I say, let’s fight the good fight and model healthy behaviors to our patients. To patients I say, show grace to your doctors who carry extra pounds – don’t assume that they are less competent or knowledgeable because of a weight problem. And to thin, female, 30-something, Caucasian survey respondents I say – Wait till you hit menopause before you judge people who are overweight!
Finding Nemo is one of my favorite Disney-Pixar cartoons. Not only does it have a cute story line, but it’s full of medical themes – consider the movie’s namesake with a congenitally deformed fin (Nemo), the shark with addiction problems (Bruce), and the blue tang fish with memory impairment (Dory). Even Nemo’s captor turns out to be a dentist! But when I think about the scene where the fish attempt escape from the dentist’s tank by plugging up the filter system to get him to remove them for cleaning, I always think about kidneys. Yep, you heard me right. Kidneys.
Kidneys are fairly under appreciated organs. They filter waste out of 200 liters of blood each day, much the way a fish tank’s filter system purifies its water. Most of us probably don’t even notice a fish tank filter when we gaze at the plastic plants, pebbles, and colorful animals inside the tank – just as we don’t give our kidneys a second thought until they cause us problems.
But the reality is that an astonishing number of people will develop chronic kidney disease (CKD) in their lifetime, largely due to complications from diabetes. An estimated 26 million Americans have CKD, and the majority don’t even know it. Our fish tank filters are failing slowly – and the build up of “algae and grime” just doesn’t cause symptoms until very late in the failure process.
Since March is Kidney Awareness Month, I thought it would be a good time to reflect upon the hard work that our little guys are doing each day. Beyond filtering drugs and chemicals from the blood, kidneys balance body fluids and electrolytes, create Vitamin D, regulate our blood pressure, and produce hormones that stimulate our bodies to produce red blood cells. In fact, anemia can be one of the first signs of kidney failure, and may be experienced as generalized fatigue. People with CKD often suffer from anemia, which can be treated with dietary changes, oral iron, IV iron, or blood transfusions depending on disease severity.
So whether or not you’ve been feeling fatigued, why not ask your primary care physician to check your kidneys next time you’re there for a check up? A simple blood test can identify many kidney diseases early on – so that you can take steps to keep your filter system healthy for life. Just ask Nemo – being in a dirty fish tank is no way to live.
Instead, what we often hear in the news is that microwaving our plastic containers or drinking from plastic water bottles could be dangerous to our health… and that BPA-free containers are better for baby. But where did the media come up with these ideas? I asked Dr. Chuck McKay, a toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at the University of Connecticut, to explain how safe levels of exposure (to various chemicals) are determined, and how to know if news reports are based on scientific evidence. I hope you’ll listen in to this educational Webinar.
Some of my favorite take-home messages from the Webinar include what I call “just becauses”:
1. Just because you can find a substance in your urine doesn’t mean it’s harmful. (Asparagus anyone?)
2. Just because an animal reacts to a substance, doesn’t mean that humans will. (How often have you caught a cold from your dog?)
3. Just because extreme doses of a substance can cause harm, doesn’t mean that tiny doses also cause harm. (Consider radiation exposure from riding in an airplane versus being near ground zero of a nuclear strike).
4. Just because something has a theoretical potential to harm, doesn’t mean it will. (Will you really be attacked by a shark in 2 feet of water at your local beach?)
5. Just because someone conducted a research study doesn’t mean their findings are accurate. (Do you really believe the Cosmo polls? There’s a lot of junk science out there!)
For an excellent review article of the high-quality science behind plastic safety, please check out this link. In the end, there are far more important health concerns to worry about than potential exposure to plastic compounds. And throwing out all your plastic containers may not even reduce your exposure to BPA anyway… A recent study found that people had higher concentrations of BPA in their urine when they followed a plastic-free, organic diet! Their exposure was actually traced to ground cinnamon, coriander, and cayenne pepper. Who knew?
When I first started blogging in 2006, the medical blogosphere consisted of a small group of physicians, nurses, and patient advocates. We knew each other well, and spent time each day visiting our favorite blogs and posting personal comments of encouragement and insight. We developed real friendships, and were optimistic about our brave new online writing frontier. We thought we could change the healthcare system for the better, we believed that our perspectives could influence policy, and we were sure that our writing could help our patients lead healthier lives.
I remember with great fondness the medical blogger conference that I attended in Las Vegas in 2009. It was the first time I’d met most of my blog friends in real life (IRL) – it was like seeing your favorite pen pals after years of correspondence. We talked all night, had marveled at how a love of writing had brought together a surgeon from South Africa, an ER nurse from California, and a Canadian rehab physician, among others. We figured that social media was the glue that held us all together. Since then, I am sad to say that for me, the glue has lost its stickiness due to dilution by third parties and a glut of poor quality content dividing attentions and exhausting our brains’ filter system.
Fast forward 7 years and most of my email correspondence is from strangers wanting to embed text links in my blog, people selling SEO services, or PR agencies inviting me to provide free coverage of their industry-sponsored conferences and webinars. I can’t think of a single friend who has left a comment on my blog in the past three months. Sure we see each other’s updates on Facebook and occasionally on Twitter, but I can’t remember the last real conversation we’ve had. Social Media has become irreversibly cluttered, and I’ve never felt more isolated or guarded about the future of medical writing.
My thoughts on this subject gelled when Twitter announced that LeBron James was following me (along with a select 80,000+ others). Obviously, LeBron has no idea who I am, and I’m almost certain he had nothing to do with his Twitter account following me. He, like many others, has outsourced his online relationship-making. It’s the ultimate irony – using social media to distance yourself from others, while maintaining an appearance of engagement. Sort of like sending a blow up doll of yourself to a party.
So what keeps some people going on these social media platforms? Perhaps it’s the allure of influence – the idea that many people are listening to you gives a sense of importance and meaning to your efforts. But take a cold hard look at your followers – do you know who most of them are? Or is there a large group of “hotchick123″ type Twitter accounts counted among them? I used to block followers who didn’t seem real or relevant, but it became so much of a chore that I couldn’t keep up. I was overwhelmed by the Huns.
One could argue that my social media fatigue is my own fault – I didn’t screen my followers properly, I didn’t follow the “right” people, I haven’t curated my friendships with as much care as I ought to… But I know I’m not alone in my pessimism. A recent Pew Research poll suggests that people are leaving Facebook at a rapid rate. And as far as Twitter is concerned, it’s not for everyone.
I guess the bottom line for me is that social media isn’t as much fun as it used to be. I miss my blog friends, I miss the early days of being part of an online community. I don’t write as much as I used to because I don’t know my audience by name anymore. This “party” is full of strangers and I don’t like the familiarity that continues in the absence of true friendship.
Time to spend more of my energy on my patients, family, and friends IRL. And that’s a good lesson for a doctor to learn…
Although most doctors say they believe in the immediate free flow of information from physician to patient, the reality is that many hospitalized patients don’t receive a full explanation of their condition(s) in a timely manner. I’ve seen patients go for days (and sometimes weeks) without knowing, for example, that their biopsy was positive for cancer when the entire medical staff was clear on the diagnosis and prognosis. So why are patients being kept in the dark about their medical conditions? I think there are several contributing factors:
1. Too many cooks in the kitchen. During the course of a hospital stay, patients are often cared for by multiple physicians. Sometimes it’s unclear who should be the first to give a patient bad news. Should the news come from their primary care physician (who presumably has a long standing, trusting relationship with the patient) or the surgeon who removed the mass but doesn’t know the patient well? In many cases each assumes/hopes the other will give the patient the unpleasant news, and so the patient remains in the dark.
2. Family blockades. It often happens that a patient’s spouse or family member will request that news of an unpleasant diagnosis be delayed. They argue that it would be best for the patient to feel better/get stronger before being emotionally devastated by a test result. In some cases the family may be right – grief and shock could impair their participation in recovery efforts, resulting in worse outcomes. Cultural differences remain regarding how patients like to receive information and how families expect to be involved in care. American-style, full, immediate disclosure directly to the patient may be considered rude and inappropriate.
3. Uncertainty of diagnosis. Sometimes a clear diagnosis only develops with time. Biopsy results can be equivocal, the exact type of tumor may be unclear, and radiology reports may be suggestive but not diagnostic. Some physicians decide not to say anything until all the results are in. They cringe at the prospect of explaining uncertainty to patients, and without all the answers they’d rather avoid the questions. What if it looks as if a patient has a certain disease but further inquiry proves that she has something else entirely? Is it right to frighten the patient with possibilities before probabilities have been established?
Although sensitivity must be applied to the nuances of individual care scenarios, my opinion is that patients should be immediately informed of their test results and their physician’s thought processes at every step along the diagnostic pathway. Family member preferences, however well-meaning they are, cannot trump the individual’s right to information about their health. If physicians are unclear regarding which of them should break the news to a patient then they should confer with one another and come up with a plan ASAP.
The right time to tell the patient the truth is: now. To my colleagues who avoid giving patients information because it is personally uncomfortable (often leaving me or other third party to be the messenger), I have two words: “man up.”
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