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'Almost like malpractice': To shed bias, doctors get schooled to look beyond obesity

Lauren Sausser, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

The problem, Butsch argued, is that too little attention is paid to obesity in medical school. When he trained and taught at Harvard Medical School for several years, Butsch said, students received no more than nine hours of obesity education spread over three days in four years.

In 2013, the American Medical Association voted to recognize obesity as a disease. But, Butsch said, doctors often approach it with a one-size-fits-all approach. “Eat less, move more” doesn’t work for everyone, he said.

Parents and medical providers need to take special care when talking to children who have been diagnosed with obesity about their weight, psychologists have warned. The way parents and providers talk to kids about their weight can have lifelong consequences and in some cases trigger unhealthy eating habits. For children who are obese, obesity experts agree, weight loss isn’t always the goal.

“There are many different forms of obesity, but we’re treating them like we’re giving the same chemotherapy to all kinds of cancer,” Butsch said.

All but four of the country’s 128 M.D.-granting medical schools reported covering content related to obesity and bariatric medicine in the 2020-21 academic year, according to curriculum data provided to KHN by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which does not represent osteopathic schools.

Even so, research suggests that many physicians haven’t been sufficiently trained to address weight issues with patients and that obesity education in medical schools across the world is “grossly neglected.” A survey completed by leaders at 40 U.S. medical schools found that only 10% felt their students were “very prepared” to manage patients with obesity.

 

Meanwhile, “half of the medical schools surveyed reported that expanding obesity education was a low priority or not a priority,” wrote the authors of a 2020 journal article that describes the survey’s results.

Butsch wants Congress to pass a resolution insisting that medical schools incorporate substantive training on nutrition, diet, and obesity. He acknowledged, though, that the medical school curriculum is already packed with subject matter deemed necessary to cover.

Dr. David Cole, president of the Medical University of South Carolina, said plenty of topics should be covered more comprehensively in medical school but aren’t. “There’s this massive tome — it’s about this big,” Cole said, raising his hand about a foot off the top of a conference table in Charleston. “The topic is: Things I never learned in medical school.”

The bigger issue, he said, is that medicine has historically been taught to emphasize memorization and has failed to emphasize culturally competent care. “That was valid 100 years ago, if you were supposed to be the fount of all knowledge,” Cole said. “That’s just not valid anymore.”

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©2022 Kaiser Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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