Monday, September 22, 2014
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Could an overweight physician convince you to lose weight?

Who could be a better guide for helping people to lose weight than their physicians? No one sees the dangers of excess weight more clearly, and no one is better positioned to spread the word.

Could an overweight physician convince you to lose weight?

Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H.

Who could be a better guide for helping people to lose weight than their physicians? No one sees the dangers of excess weight more clearly, and no one is better positioned to spread the word.

But what if the physician giving the advice could stand to lose a few pounds, himself? Does that dilute the message?

According to a 2004 study, 44 percent of all physicians in the United States are either overweight or obese. That means almost half of the most effective spokespeople for the benefits of slimming down have ignored their own profession’s recommendations.

Some of the reason may be the enticements they constantly face to overeat. A study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association tried to estimate the number of free meals that are offered to physicians on a regular basis. It found an abundance of them.

The study reported that more than 40,000 continuing medical education events for physicians were held in the United States in 2010, a large number of which offered free meals. Many of the 9,000 residency training programs for new physicians arrange at least one free lunch conference a week. Many medical students regularly attend free weekly pizza club discussions. And research projects often provide free meals at regular meetings of team members.

What do attendees eat at these events? The study’s authors found that the typical meal contains 1,280 calories, about double what is needed. Between a turkey sandwich, bag of chips, cookie and sugary drink, there is a lot of fat and salt and no vegetables. (And we can only guess what attendees consume when the menu includes pizza.)

Another recent study looked at offerings at hospital cafeterias where many physicians grab a lot of their meals. It found excessive calorie counts for most of them. And another examined the food served as medical society meetings and discovered that menus rarely follow nutritional guidelines.

What does this mean for the function of physicians as role models? According to another recent research report, physicians who are overweight are less likely to diagnose obesity in their patients or to offer counseling for it. They usually identify the condition only when a patient’s weight is higher than their own.

Once upon a time, many physicians smoked. They did so in hospitals and often in front of patients. As the anti-smoking movement gained steam, that behavior stopped. Hospitals no longer permit smoking inside their walls, and today, patients rarely see their caregivers lighting up.

Perhaps it’s time to take the same approach to unhealthy eating. Hospitals, medical schools, continuing education providers, and medical societies could start by serving the same meals to physicians that physicians would like their patients to eat. It may not slim down the entire profession, but it would help to eliminate the conflicting message that physicians and patients currently receive.

If there’s going to be such a thing as a free lunch, at least it should be healthy.

Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H. Professor, School of Law & Drexel School of Public Health
About this blog

Check Up covers major health events in our region and offers everything from personal health advice to an expert look at health reform. Read about some of our bloggers here.

For Inquirer.com. Portions of this blog may also be found in the Inquirer's Sunday Health Section

Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H. Professor, School of Law & Drexel School of Public Health
Jeffrey Brenner, MD Founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Medical Director of the Urban Health Institute at Cooper University Healthcare
Andy Carter President & CEO, The Hospital & Healthsystem Assoc. of Pa.
Robert B. Doherty Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs & Public Policy American College of Physicians
David Grande, MD, MPA Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Tine Hansen-Turton Chief Strategy Officer of Public Health Management Corporation
Drew A. Harris, DPM, MPH Director of Health Policy Program at the Jefferson School of Population Health
Antoinette Kraus Director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network
Laval Miller-Wilson Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Health Law Project
David B. Nash, MD, MBA Founding Dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health
Mark V. Pauly, Ph.D. Professor of Health Care Management, Business Economics and Public Policy at The Wharton School
Howard J. Peterson, MHA Managing Partner of TRG Healthcare, a national healthcare consulting firm
Donald Schwarz, MD, MPH Deputy Mayor for Health & Opportunity and Health Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia
Paula L. Stillman, MD, MBA Healthcare consultant with special expertise in population health and disease management
Elizabeth A. W. Williams Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer for Independence Blue Cross
Krystyna Dereszowska A third-year law student concentrating in health at Drexel
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