Weight Bias in Healthcare: Statistics and Solutions

weight bias in healthcare

Ideally, all people seeking care from today’s health systems and providers should be treated equally and equitably across the board. Sadly, it’s now 2024 and this is still not the case. Implicit and explicit biases in healthcare continue to weave their way into patient-provider interactions with profoundly negative influences on patient outcomes.

As concepts supportive of health equity and inclusion have begun to gain traction for closing health disparity gaps, healthcare workers and providers have cultivated a greater appreciation for the human factor. Among the biases patients face, weight bias is one of the most common and damaging across all lines of service in the industry. It impacts every aspect of care, and may even dissuade people from visiting a doctor for basic and highly treatable conditions. 

Like all discrimination, the first step to eliminating weight bias in healthcare is by spreading awareness through education. Continuing education courses like Implicit Bias—Weight Stigma in Healthcare by Premiere can set the foundation for building meaningful solutions, and empower professionals with the tools they need to provide equitable and optimal care for all their patients. 

Understanding Weight Bias

Weight bias in healthcare manifests as negative, prejudicial, or stereotypical beliefs directed at people based on their body weight that affect the interactions they have with doctors, nurses, and staff. It includes assumptions about a person’s lifestyle, character traits, or underlying causes of medical conditions that can lead to discouraging experiences and inaccurate diagnoses resulting in negative outcomes. 

While weight-related biases are often directed at people who are overweight, it’s not limited to any particular body type. Someone who is exceptionally skinny, for instance,  may face uncomfortable questions about eating disorders when they are actually suffering from an unrelated illness. It can also result in care strategies that are appropriate but not compassionately delivered. It can take the form of looks, comments, and even scaring patients with weight loss recommendations, and nearly 50% of health professionals report witnessing their coworkers exhibiting these behaviors. Finally, staff may simply be reluctant to work with patients with obesity, or lack the proper equipment to manage their health concerns. 

The Impact of Weight Bias on Healthcare

Weight bias in healthcare presents an increased potential for negative physical health outcomes, further complicating an already complex issue. By excessively focusing on a patient’s weight, providers may be distracted from serious underlying health conditions or contribute to challenges in losing weight.

Common themes of weight bias in healthcare include contemptuous, patronizing, and disrespectful treatment, ambivalence, and the attribution of all health issues to excess weight. This, combined with insufficient training, can foster a lack of trust and poor communication that erodes the doctor/patient relationship and prevents meaningful conversations from taking place. 

In addition to worse medical care, patients who experience weight bias in healthcare settings can be vulnerable to anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression which leads to an avoidance of care. These mental health challenges can compound existing health issues and produce new ones that result in a cycle of stigmatization and reluctance. 

Even when a patient is seeking care to lose weight, weight bias can contribute to poor outcomes. In one study, participants who associated their obesity with negative traits were more likely to drop out of an 18-week behavioral weight loss program compared to participants who evidenced lower levels of weight bias. People who are shamed for their weight may also experience exercise avoidance or be reluctant to engage in weight loss programs. 

Healthcare Statistics on Weight Bias

Despite conversations and continuing education initiatives to combat weight stigma, it’s still an extremely common form of discrimination. Research on the topic reinforces just how prevalent weight bias in healthcare is, and the numbers paint a concerning picture that providers and healthcare workers need to take seriously.

  • 53% of women with obesity report hearing inappropriate comments about their weight from healthcare professionals.
  • 79% of people with excess weight or obesity said they have eaten more to cope with feeling discriminated against because of their weight.
  • 52% of women believe being overweight is a barrier to receiving good healthcare.
  • 40% of healthcare professionals admit to having negative reactions to patients with obesity.

All of these experiences contribute to the formation of barriers in the healthcare industry, and instances of reported weight bias have actually increased 66% over the last decade. Continuing education and training are more crucial than ever for preventing the spread of weight bias in healthcare.

Solutions For Weight Bias

Unfortunately, there are no quick ways to influence someone’s beliefs, and implementing solutions for weight bias can be challenging. Compounding the issue is the fact that not all people who exhibit weight bias are aware of what they’re doing. Solutions need to focus on raising awareness and giving healthcare professionals the tools they need to deliver more equitable and objective care by:

  • Increasing provider awareness of the impact of their biases with science-backed data and statistics. 
  • Providing coursework and information related to weight bias and weight management during medical training. Also, supporting positive interactions with patients or peers with obesity during medical school has been shown to reduce implicit and explicit weight bias in medical trainees.
  • Including weight stigma training in CE licensing requirements for healthcare professionals. 
  • Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for the use of biased language or humor aimed at patients with obesity. In addition to the direct impact on the patient, overhearing this language predicts increases in bias among medical professionals in training.

Help Stop Weight Bias in Healthcare

Weight bias in healthcare has a profound impact on the willingness to seek care, the care itself, and both mental and physical health outcomes. Today, discrimination based on weight has become more prevalent than ever, and Premiere is committed to providing high-quality continuing education that informs healthcare professionals about the impact of weight bias and how to prevent it. 

Courses like Implicit Bias—Weight Stigma in Healthcare by Anne Cockerham, Ph.D., RN, CNM, WHNO-BC, CNE offer an exploration of the concept of weight stigma as a type of implicit bias, giving insight into how patients experience weight stigma in a variety of settings while identifying concrete strategies for change. All courses by Premiere are created by leading industry experts, and make staying current, compliant, and informed as easy as finding a screen. 

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