The Current

How 'fat shaming' from doctors is leading to misdiagnoses for obese patients

Critics are calling out health-care provides who fat-shame obese patients, arguing it leads to inferior care compared to non-obese patients.

Study found screening tests less likely for overweight patients

Ellen Maud Bennett died on May 11 at the age of 64. She said her dying wish was that 'women of size' should advocate for their health. (Legacy website)

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Critics are calling out health-care provides who fat shame obese patients, arguing it leads to inferior care compared to non-obese patients.

"Their chief complaint is ascribed to their weight without a fulsome investigation of the other possibilities," Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, told The Current's guest host Megan Williams.

Stories of weight-based discrimination recently flooded social media after the obituary of Ellen Maud Bennett went viral. Maud Bennett was given only five days to live after being diagnosed with stage four cancer, having spent years seeking treatment and only receiving advice to lose weight.

"I just want them to listen to their patients," said Kelly Anne Boudreau, who believes her degenerative genetic condition was also initially missed by doctors because they were preoccupied with her weight.

Kelly Anne Boudreau stopped going to the doctor after routinely being met with a general scepticism because she was overweight. (Submitted by Kelly Anne Boudreau)

"Just listen to what I have to say and don't give a little chuckle like you know better. I'm living it, I'm feeling it. Just listen."

2015 Lancet study found health-care providers spend less time with obese patients and are more reluctant to give them screening tests.

It also found health providers stereotype obese patients as less likely to adhere to medications, or follow medical advice. 

"It is a real social justice issue ... not just in the context of not getting proper testing but also in potentially not having access to the same care and services that patients without obesity might have," said Freedhoff.

He believes the dismissal of obese patients is embedded in a weight bias, with obesity being the only non-transferable disease doctors routinely "moralize."

"We say, 'Well, because a person can [lose weight], therefore they should do it, and if they don't do it, they have failed.'"

Alongside misdiagnoses, fat shaming may also alienate obese patients from the health-care system and discourage them from going to the doctor. 

"If you delay seeking treatment or delay seeing a physician because you're afraid of how you will be judged or treated in the office, that would extend itself to every area of medicine," said Freedhoff.

He added that since there's no silver bullet as to how best to tackle weight loss, patients and doctors must trust each other when addressing the particular health outcomes of obesity.

"I think family doctors can fairly ask patients if they themselves have any concerns about the impact of their weight on their health or their quality of life. If the answer is no, then I think we should respect the patients," he said.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Allie Jaynes and Alison Masemann.