Most of us hold the image of doctor as a benevolent, impartial sources of care. We believe that if we go to the doctor, we will receive the same quality of care as any other human being who does the same, regardless of that person’s gender or race – or weight. Certainly, we imagine, people with weight problems, like people of advanced age, may have more problems which relate back to their weight. Excess weight has a detrimental effect on overall heath, doesn’t it? However, a doctor would check other avenues before chalking up an overweight person’s problems to just their Body Mass Index, wouldn’t he? Just as he would make sure that an aging individual complaining of fatigue would not simply be written off as old.
As it turns out, thought, doctors are guilty of the same biases as many other people. Most of us believe in the risks of obesity, and doctors are not above all other mortals. Many doctors and other medical professionals see an overweight person, and they expect them to have more health problems than an individual of healthy weight.
And this bias harms women more than any other group.
A CNN article last month goes into great detail on this problem.
According to CNN, recent studies have indicated that overweight women are likely to experience a wide variety of short-comings in their medical treatment. These include:
• Having a harder time finding medical insurance and paying higher premiums.
• Being at higher risk of being misdiagnosed or receiving inaccurate dosages of medications.
• Being less likely to find a fertility doctor willing to treat them.
• Being less likely to have cancer detected early and treated effectively.
All of these are very serious problem, and things which drastically affect the quality of women’s lives, their ability to plan and have a family as they chose, and in some cases seriously affect their health – potentially even risking their lives.
There are many hurdles facing overweight people, including diagnostic difficulty and poor research, but even these are not excuses for receiving substandard care. However, often, this is not the primary problem. The problem is nothing other than bias and prejudice against overweight people – particularly overweight women.
CNN refers to the phenomenon of attribution. Attribution takes place when a doctor or other medical professional sees a person, in this case an overweight women, and unconsciously attributes their health symptoms to the obvious health problem. Say a patient complains of breathing problems. Those can be attributed by her weight problems, so why look further?
That is precisely what happened to Jen Seelaus, a Connecticut woman, when she sought help for breathing problems. Seelaus expected that the medication for her asthma needed changing, since it was no longer effective. Instead, the overweight woman was told that she would feel better if she just lost weight. Seelaus had already been diagnosed with asthma, but the nurse whom she spoke to saw her weight rather than her medical history.
“I didn’t go to be lectured about my weight. I was there because I couldn’t breathe,” said Seelaus. “Asthma can be dangerous if it gets out of control, and the nurse practitioner totally ignored that because of my weight.”