Female doctor holding tailor's tape with a disapproving expression

The Obesity Bias: How Doctors Dismiss People Who Are Overweight

Last updated: May 2022

If you go to the doctor for a health issue or concern, or because you are in pain, you would expect a thorough exam to get to the root cause. This does not always happen for those who are overweight or obese, due to biases in healthcare.

About 2 out of every 3 people in the United States are overweight or obese. Those who are overweight have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or greater, and those who are obese have a BMI of 30 or greater. This means that a large number of people going to the doctor for a concern might face unnecessary biases due to their body shape or size.1

Body size and bias in healthcare

Weight bias in medicine may stem from a variety of factors, including the minimal education about obesity that doctors get in college and in medical school. There is also little to no education about weight bias, stigma, and their impact on people who are overweight or obese. If there is no education or discussion about these issues, doctors tend not to see it as a problem or even recognize the issue exists.1

Obesity is a complex condition that is not merely “eating too much.” Factors can include:1

  • Genetics
  • Hormonal issues
  • Developmental issues
  • A history of trauma
  • Environmental issues

A strictly medical approach sees obesity as only an issue of weight gain and the idea of fatness as a disease, with weight loss as the cure. This way of thinking influences how doctors approach health concerns or complaints: the excess weight must be the culprit.2

This kind of thinking can also lead to doctors or healthcare providers unconsciously viewing people who are overweight or obese as having poor health habits or lacking self-control. This might influence their attitudes toward the person in a negative way.2

How do these biases affect people in pain or those with health conditions?

If an overweight or obese person has had negative interactions with their doctor because of fat shaming or being made to feel bad about their size, they may be less likely to go to the doctor, especially when there is a problem.2

The health impacts of weight bias in healthcare are widespread and can include:1,2

  • Exclusion from medical studies
  • Under-dosing of antibiotics or other medicines
  • Not taking health complaints seriously
  • Assuming any health complaints or symptoms are due to being overweight
  • Failing to run the right tests to make an accurate diagnosis
  • Negative effects on mental health, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal tendency
  • Reduced trust in the healthcare system, leading to less engagement with it
  • Physiological reactions like increased blood pressure and blood sugar

In a study of more than 300 autopsies, people who were obese were 1.65 times more likely than those who were not obese to have significant undiagnosed medical conditions. This suggests that they were misdiagnosed or did not have access to appropriate care.2

Things to consider

It is worth it to find a doctor you like and trust. Talk with them about your health concerns, and if you experience weight bias or inappropriate treatment, ask to speak with the office staff about your experience there. They might not be aware of how their biases show up in their treatment.

If you are overweight or obese and experiencing pain, any other health symptoms, or have concerns, see your doctor. Let them know what you are feeling. If need be, bring a friend or family member for support. If the doctor recommends a certain treatment, ask them if they would recommend the same treatment for a person with a normal BMI. If the focus remains on your weight, redirect it to your symptoms and concerns.1,2

You deserve relief from your symptoms and an accurate diagnosis. Find a doctor who will work with you to find out the underlying cause of your symptoms so you can get proper treatment.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The HSDisease.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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