Study: Physicians less likely to bond with overweight patients

A recent study by Johns Hopkins showed that physicians are less likely to show empathy toward patients who are overweight and obese. The study suggests that disconnect could lead the patient to be less compliant of his doctor’s advice. (Photo courtesy stock.xchng)

Are you and your doctor close?

A recent study by Johns Hopkins found there might be a reason behind a patient-physician disconnect.

The small study — of 39 primary care doctors and 208 of their patients — showed physicians built less of an emotional rapport with their overweight and obese patients than with their patients of normal weight.

Bonding and empathy are essential to the patient-physician relationship, according to a news release. When physicians express more empathy, studies have shown that patients are more likely to adhere to medical recommendations and respond to behavior-change counseling — vital elements in helping overweight and obese patients lose weight and improve health.

“If you aren’t establishing a rapport with your patients, they may be less likely to adhere to your recommendations to change their lifestyles and lose weight,” said Dr. Kimberly A. Gudzune, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study published online in the journal Obesity.

Gudzune said studies have linked bonding behaviors with patient satisfaction and adherence, while other studies have found that patients were more likely to change their dietary habits, increase exercise and attempt to lose weight when their physicians expressed more empathy.

“Without that rapport, you could be cheating the patients who need that engagement the most,” she said.

According to the study, patient weight played no role in the quantity of physicians’ medical questions, medical advice, counseling or treatment regimen discussions. But when it came to showing empathy, concern and understanding, the doctors were significantly more likely to express those behaviors in interactions with patients of normal weight than with overweight and obese patients, regardless of the medical topic being discussed.

Obese patients might be particularly vulnerable to poorer physician-patient communications, Gudzune said, because studies have shown that physicians might hold negative attitudes toward these patients.

She said physicians should be mindful of any negative attitudes, make an effort to bond, and then spend time with overweight and obese patients 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.

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About Leigh Zaleski

I'm a health features reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News and healthy living blogger for No Sweat, York. Contact me with story ideas at lzaleski@ydr.com, 717-771-2101 or @leighzaleski on Twitter.
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