Doctors May Have Less Empathy, Understanding Toward Patients Who Are Overweight: Study

Doctors may be less likely to have a good emotional rapport with their patients if the patients are overweight or obese, a small Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study suggests.

This is important because "if you aren't establishing a rapport with your patients, they may be less likely to adhere to your recommendations to change their lifestyles and lose weight," study researcher Dr. Kimberly A. Gudzune, M.D., M.P.H., who is an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the university, said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Obesity, included 39 primary care doctors and 208 patients in Baltimore. The patients, who all had high blood pressure, saw the doctors between 2003 and 2005. Researchers recorded the patients' visits with the doctors to get a glimpse into their interactions, as well as to see how often doctors said empathetic things like "I can see how frustrated you are by your slow progress -- anyone would be."

Researchers did not find associations between the patients' weight and the doctors' counseling, treatment or advice, but they did find associations with doctors' show of empathy and understanding.

"I hear from patients all the time about how they resent feeling judged negatively because of their weight," Gudzune said in the statement. "Yes, doctors need to be medical advisors, but they also have the opportunity to be advocates to support their patients through changes in their lives."

In the same vein, a 2010 study from Duke University researchers showed that patients had a greater chance of losing weight if their doctors were empathetic toward them -- being motivational, rather than judgmental, HealthDay reported.

Past research also shows that the more empathetic a doctor is, the better his or her patients' outcomes. A study published last year in the journal Academic Medicine showed that diabetes patients with more empathetic doctors had fewer acute metabolic complications, compared with doctors with less empathetic doctors.