According to new research carried out by scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, forty percent of medical students are unconsciously biased against obese people.

The study, published in the Journal of Academic Medicine, revealed that doctors generally have an anti-fat bias which results in obese people not receiving the same level of respect as slim people. Doctors may assume that due to their obesity they won’t follow treatment plans.

David Miller, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study, said:

“Bias can affect clinical care and the doctor-patient relationship, and even a patient’s willingness or desire to go see their physician, so it is crucial that we try to deal with any bias during medical school.

Doctors are more likely to assume that obese individuals won’t follow treatment plans, and they are less likely to respect obese patients than average weight patients.”

Previous research has shown that on average, physicians have a strong anti-fat bias similar to that of the general population. At the American College of Sports Medicine’s 14th-annual Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition, experts revealed that children suffering from obesity are victims of societal judgment and assumptions.

The study evaluated the extent of unconscious weight-related biases among people studying medicine and whether or not they were aware of their biases.

A total of 300 third-year students studying medicine participated in the study, from 2008 to 2011. The students came from different parts of the world (representing a total of 13 countries including the U.S.)

The students preference for “fat” or “thin” patients was measured with a computer program called the Weight Implicit Association Test (IAT). They also completed a survey which assessed their weight-related preferences.

The researchers compared the results to see how many students were aware of their bias.

Most of the students had a moderate to strong unconscious anti-fat bias (39 percent) compared to only 17 percent who had a moderate to strong anti-thin bias.

Surprisingly, fewer than 1 in every 4 of the students knew about their biases.

Miller added:

“Because anti-fat stigma is so prevalent and a significant barrier to the treatment of obesity, teaching medical students to recognize and mitigate this bias is crucial to improving the care for the two-thirds of American adults who are now overweight or obese. Medical schools should address weight bias as part of a comprehensive obesity curriculum.”

Even though this study did not reveal ways to reduce biases, Miller said that acknowledging its existence is a prerequisite to combating prejudice.

It is compulsory for all medical students at Wake Forest Baptist to complete the online IAT and then discuss their experience with bias in an in-class discussion. Miller said that the students should realize that biases can affect a patient-doctor relationship in a negative way.

In fact, patient bias can result in poor medical judgment. University of Washington research showed that pediatricians who show an unconscious preference for European Americans tend to prescribe better pain-management for white patients than they do for African-Americans.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist