What Your Patients are Hearing

Doctor shaming about weight hurts women’s health


Physicians take the “first do no harm” aphorism seriously. Still, as humans, their biases and opinions can – and do – cause harm. An example, according to an opinion piece written in the Globe and Mail, is the way physicians sometimes treat women who are overweight.

The article cites an Alabama woman named Kayla Rahm, whose complaints of weight gain, abdominal swelling, and shortness of breath fell on the deaf ears of four doctors who, instead of getting to the bottom of her problem, pointed to her weight as the culprit. Ultimately, she had a 50-pound ovarian cyst removed (thankfully, benign.)

“She was seeking help from multiple physicians, and we had missed it – as a medical community, we had missed it,” said Gregory Jones, DO, the obstetrician-gynecologist who performed the eventual surgery, in an interview with the Washington Post.

The weight-related rebuff is all too common for women. The consequences can be tragic. Consider Ellen Maud Bennett, a Canadian woman whose complaints of ill health stretching back years had been met with suggestions to lose weight. All the while, cancer was developing, and when the truth was finally recognized, it was too late.

Her obituary offered this poignant message: “A final message Ellen wanted to share was about the fat shaming she endured from the medical profession. Over the past few years of feeling unwell, she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss. Ellen’s dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.”

Overweight women are reportedly less likely to be referred for cervical and breast-cancer screenings. Fat shaming can dissuade women from seeking medical help. Instead, they can buy into the view that their health problems are self-imposed.

A recent study conducted in Canada involving more than 54,000 clinically obese people, some with metabolic risk factors and others were who just obese, found that those with no metabolic risk factors were no more likely to die than people of lower weight. “This means that hundreds of thousands of people in North America alone with metabolically healthy obesity will be told to lose weight when it’s questionable how much benefit they’ll actually receive ,” head researcher Jennifer L. Kuk, PhD, said in an interview with Science Daily.

Click here to read about Dr. Kuk’s study.

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