Healthcare providers can do more harm than good if they don’t use the correct language when communicating with patients about their body weight problems. This was the finding of a new study featured in the International Journal of Obesity’s online publication. The research comes from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
The study looked at how patients perceive and react to terms commonly used by doctors to describe body weight issues, more specifically excess body weight. Results indicate that the language doctors use with their patients who are struggling with body weight issues can potentially reinforce the stigma associated with being overweight and this, in turn, can cause them to lose their motivation to lose weight and even make them want to avoid seeing their doctor again.
The researchers found out what American adults’ opinions were regarding 10 terms commonly used to describe excess body weight: weight, unhealthy weight, high BMI, weight problem, chubby, heavy, fat, overweight, obese, and morbidly obese. Survey participants said they preferred the words “weight” and “unhealthy weight” when their doctors discuss excess weight issues with them. The words “unhealthy weight” and “overweight” were rated as providing the most motivation to lose weight, while the terms “chubby” or “fat” were considered the least motivating. The terms “fat,” “obese” and “morbidly obese” were rated by respondents as the most stigmatizing and blaming terms.
Irrespective of sociodemographic factors and the participants’ body weight, majority of responders said if they felt stigmatized by how their doctor discussed their weight problems, they would be embarrassed, upset, and feel badly about themselves. In fact, 21 percent of respondents said they would look for a new healthcare provider and 19 percent would avoid future appointments with their doctor if they felt stigmatized about their weight.
Rebecca Puhl, the study’s lead author and Yale Rudd Center’s director of research, said, “Although health providers face significant challenges in efforts to prevent and treat obesity, their efforts must begin with a non-stigmatizing conversation with patients about weight and health.” Given that the role of healthcare providers is key to preventing and treating obesity, the findings suggest that they should more effectively communicate support and respect for patients by using the correct terminology when discussing excess body weight issues. They should also take into consideration patients’ emotional health alongside their physical health and avoid making them feel stigmatized and blamed if they are to successfully motivate them to become healthier.