Are Doctors Biased Against Overweight Women?

by Catherine Morgan, BlogHer Contributing Editor, Health & Wellness

I came across a pretty disturbing article today. It suggests that doctors are biased against overweight women, to the extent of jeopardizing their health and well-being. It's no secret that overweight people experience bias in many ways, but recent studies have found that overweight women are actually being discriminated against by their own doctors and health care professionals. With two out of every three Americans considered to be overweight or obese, this bias could be putting many people at risk.

How serious is the problem?

It begins with the availability of quality health care. If you are overweight, you may have a harder time getting health insurance, or be made to pay higher premiums than your thinner counterparts. And it doesn't stop there. You may be paying more, but getting less. For instance, an overweight woman is more likely to be misdiagnosed or prescribed the wrong dosage of medication. There is also a greater risk of not detecting cancer early enough for effective treatment. And overweight women are also less likely to find a fertility doctor to help them have a child.

From CNN:The Surprising Reason Why Being Overweight Isn't Healthy...

A recent Yale study suggested that weight bias can start when a woman is as little as 13 pounds over her highest healthy weight.

"Our culture has enormous negativity toward overweight people, and doctors aren't immune," says Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Jerome Groopman, M.D., author of "How Doctors Think." "If doctors have negative feelings toward patients, they're more dismissive, they're less patient, and it can cloud their judgment, making them prone to diagnostic errors."

With nearly 70 million American women who are considered overweight, the implications of this new information is disturbing, to say the least.

The above CNN post was originally published at Health.com. Oddly, the picture that CNN chose to use in its headline is one that contributes to the negative stereotype (and stigma) of overweight women.

From Thus Spake Zuska...

First of all, the photo takes up a lot less real estate on the page than CNN's photo does. It sits beside the story, instead of blaring across the top of the page as something you have to scroll past before you can get to the story. And finally, CNN's photo says to the female reader "this is how the world sees all you fat bitches" whereas Health.com's photo says something more like "you are taking control of your health".

Here is some of what other women are saying about weight bias and health care.

From Big Fat Deal: Fat-22...

The health risks of obesity may be exaggerated by (or in part caused by) the discrimination of health care professionals. Particularly, of course, when their patients are women. I'll quote at length; the article really speaks for itself. (Shout out to Suzy Smith, my Facebook friend, who is mentioned in the article.)

From A Day In The Life of the Danas: Another Reason To Move It and Lose It...

Beyond the humiliation of being treated with less courtesy or attention, this healthcare discrimination can be harmful or even deadly. Recent studies confirmed what many people suspect through anecdotal evidence: Medical professionals tend to misdiagnose, refuse to treat and fail to detect serious medical issues impacting overweight women. One Harvard Medical School professor commented that doctors tend to be more dismissive and less patient with overweight people, rendering them prone to diagnostic errors as a result of clouded judgment. This attitude also discourages overweight patients from seeking needed preventative care or follow up on a health concern, leading to more serious health emergencies from neglect.

Sondra Thiederman at Unbound Ideas has written about weight bias in A Few Extra Pounds...

Some researchers even go so far as to say that weight-based stereotypes are stronger than race or gender bias. This at first seems unlikely, but begins to make some sense when we consider what Dr. Boris Baites, a psychology professor at Wayne State University, has to say. He theorizes that the reason weight bias is so strong and pervasive is because people assume that how much a person weighs is, unlike race or gender, within his or her control.

I'm not here to dispute the reality that, beyond some vaguely described limit, carrying extra pounds does impact health and, therefore, productivity and corporate health care costs. But, that's not the kind of obesity I'm talking about. I'm talking about those millions of healthy, productive, valuable human beings who are overlooked or rejected solely because they no longer, or never could, fit into a pair of size 8 jeans.

From Health.com: Have I Gotten Worse Health Care Because of My Weight?

Your weight can influence how well diagnostic equipment works (even stethoscopes!), how well drugs work, your doctor's attitude (in one survey doctors actually indicated that seeing heavy patients was "a waste of time"), and even procedures that hospitals will allow (some turn down heavy patients because they want to keep their success rates up).

What do you think about weight bias in health care? Personally, I know that being even a little bit overweight can exacerbate many health problems. And that is why I am still trying to take off those last 10-15 pounds -- I'm hoping it will help me get my blood pressure under control. However, I do believe that it is wrong for doctors to discriminate against someone based on her weight. There needs to be a balance between helping people understand how their weight may be affecting their health, and overlooking serious medical conditions because of someone's weight. It seems like a no-brainer. Hey doctors ... Remember the "first do no harm" thing?

Have you been discriminated against by a doctor or health care professional because you are overweight? Are you worried that you might be in the future?

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BlogHer Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
Also at Catherine-Morgan.com

[photo credit: Getty Images]