Preventing Weight Discrimination in Healthcare Settings

weight discrimination in healthcare

The topic of body weight and how it relates to health has long since been a source of contentious conversation between doctors and patients, and it’s driven by one of the most common myths in all of healthcare:  

A higher body weight and better health are mutually exclusive. 

For decades, professionals in clinics, hospitals, and in the media have been declaring that it’s impossible to be healthy if you’re overweight, and hitting the gym and eating salads are the be-all/end-all prescriptions for larger people’s health challenges. Unfortunately, this attitude has led to weight discrimination in healthcare, causing serious medical issues to be marginalized, over-simplified, and even completely ignored. 

Fortunately, modern thinking and research are confirming that this approach is doing far more harm than good. Today’s industry is seeking to look beyond traditional perspectives to identify root causes, support patient engagement, and pursue best practices that create better overall health outcomes. 

Of course, unhealthy weight does present medical challenges, but preventing discrimination is an important step in separating fact from fiction so that every patient can get the best possible care. Continuing education courses like Implicit Bias—Weight Stigma in Healthcare are raising awareness and educating healthcare providers to be on the lookout for this ongoing problem. 

Understanding Weight Discrimination

Weight discrimination in healthcare occurs when the quality of care a patient receives is impacted by biases and assumptions by providers about how their weight relates to their overall health. For instance, a patient could be struggling with their weight because of thyroid issues or chemical imbalances, but a doctor might simply attribute it to overeating or a lack of exercise. Worse, life-threatening causes like cancer may be dismissed as character flaws, such as laziness, indifference to social norms and health standards, or self-control issues. 

Unfortunately, while conversations are beginning to evolve, weight stigma is still a prevalent issue across the industry. Since 1995, patient reports of weight discrimination in healthcare have gone up 66%, and overweight women in particular are disproportionately affected. Changing attitudes and improving health outcomes will be an ongoing challenge in the fight against discrimination. 

How Weight Discrimination Occurs in Healthcare

There are several ways weight discrimination manifests, and it typically follows consistent patterns and themes. Whether it’s at the front desk of a major hospital or an office at an urgent care clinic, the following forms of discrimination can occur in virtually any setting. 

Attributing All Health Issues to Weight

Patients with obesity often feel like the healthcare professionals they’re seeing tend to attribute all their health problems to their weight. The perception from the patient is that their weight is distracting providers from other health issues and they are not being listened to, which makes seeking care a frustrating and discouraging experience. 

Patronizing and Disrespectful Treatment

In a recent study, survey participants reported frequently disrespectful and contemptuous interactions with providers that included verbal insults or inappropriate humor. Participants also reported feeling patronized when medical providers delivered overly simplified solutions to losing weight.

Lack of Training

Patients struggling with obesity commonly reported feeling as though the medical providers they were being treated by did not have adequate knowledge about weight management, eating disorders, or supportive services to enhance weight loss. The experience reinforced the belief that seeking treatment was ineffective and couldn’t help them manage their health and wellness. 


Patients who felt their providers were judgmental about their weight tended to lack trust in the system and were less inclined to bring up concerns surrounding it. This reluctance erodes the doctor/patient relationship and limits the quality of care that can be provided. Patients who experienced communication issues described themes like avoiding treatment, doctor shopping, altered expectations in healthcare provisions, and barriers to healthcare utilization. 

Additionally, research indicates that communication is a two-way street. Physicians are less likely to put effort into patient-centered communication or the development of the kind of rapport necessary to have sensitive conversations. All of this contributes to a breakdown in vital channels of communication about health issues and how to manage them. 

Reducing Weight Discrimination

The first step in fighting weight discrimination is appreciating its existence and understanding how it operates. As with other forms of discrimination, improvement begins by examining the language we use. Healthcare providers should ensure they always acknowledge obesity as a disease process, not a personal description. For example, instead of referring to patients as “obese”, they should be characterized as “a patient with obesity.” 

Also, when it comes to supporting and managing the health of someone with obesity, it’s critical for healthcare providers to move away from scripted or overly standardized responses and focus on real data and objective facts. A patient-centered approach that dives deeper into the potential causes of obesity opens up conversations, restores trust, and improves outcomes.

Finally, continuing education about weight discrimination in healthcare should be a standard inclusion for licensing and renewal processes. The vast majority of health professionals are caring, well-meaning people who may not understand how their words or actions are affecting their patients who struggle with weight. A single course with scientifically backed data and helpful guidance can be all it takes to make a huge impact in the lives of thousands of people seeking compassionate care every day. 

Preventing Weight Discrimination in Healthcare Starts With Education

Weight discrimination in healthcare can directly influence a person’s investment in their well-being and damage the ability of providers to spot serious medical issues in the people they serve. Awareness is the first step in fighting weight discrimination, and Premiere is committed to educating health professionals so they can provide the best care for all the patients they serve. 

Courses like Implicit Bias - Weight Stigma in Healthcare created by Premiere’s Anne Cockerman Ph.D., RN, CNM, WHNP-BC, CNE are the perfect tools for training doctors and nurses in all settings to be on the lookout for weight discrimination in healthcare. 

All courses by Premiere are created by industry experts and make keeping current on the latest healthcare trends and satisfying licensing requirements as simple as finding a screen. 

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