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Weight Bias Awareness Is Still Not Being Taught To Health Professionals

bariatric patient in bedDespite long being identified as one of the key factors influencing health care for people living with obesity, weight bias and discrimination is still widespread in health care settings.

So, has increased recognition of this problem resulted in the incorporation of this topic in health care training programs?

This was the topic of a study by Shelly Russell-Mayhew from the University of Calgary and colleagues, published in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

The environmental scan looked at teaching curricula from 67 Alberta training programs (26 diploma programs, 41 degree programs) from 22 training institutions (16 colleges, 6 universities) in medicine (MD, MSc, PhD), family medicine residency, nursing (DPN, BN, BSc, MN, MSc), dietetics (BSc), pharmacy (BSc, PharmD), physical therapy (MSc), occupational therapy (MSc), clinical and counselling psychology (MEd, MSc, PhD), school psychology (MSc, PhD), and social work (DSW, BSW, MSW).

Despite including general course work on obesity (mainly about diet and exercise), only social work students and students in one graduate level nurse practitioner program included coursework specifically dedicated to bias, discrimination, or social justice issues.

As the authors note,

“These results provide preliminary support for previous assertions that systematic training in obesity and weight bias is overlooked, and that the training provided fails to meet the needs of practitioners once they enter the health care field.”

Although the study was limited to Alberta, there is little reason to hope that the situation elsewhere in Canada is any better.

Thus, it appears that training programs have yet to embrace the importance of preparing future health care workers for addressing the needs of clients living with obesity with appropriate sensitivity regarding weight and size.

Vancouver, BC


  1. I agree that more education is needed, but regardless of education many health professionals will do as they see fit. If there were some kind of system in place, whereby patients could report their suffering of weight bias/discrimination and know that the perpetrators would be disciplined accordingly, I think we would all be better off. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes disciplinary measures are the only way to end bad behaviour!

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  2. I’ve lived in Newfoundland and Ontario where it’s been my experience that all levels of health practitioners have very little sympathy or understanding of over-weight but e. They assume every fat person’s problem is over-eating, they don’t ask questions to understand the person’s issues or needs, and they recommend that ‘just eating less’ will cure the person’s problem. I eat well, occasionally snack on things I shouldn’t, but getting enough regular exercise is my problem due to joint pain in my hips and knees. To be told to eat less is not helpful. The social stigma of over-eating also accompanies these assumptions. I don’t over eat. I just don’t exercise. But to be treated as a Mrs Piggy-at-the-trough is hurtful in the extreme. The medical profession has a lot of work to do to bring its members up to speed on assessing patient needs.

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  3. It might be a rarity, but at Dalhousie the first year students in medicine have a three hour case specifically addressing obesity and stigma as part of their training in Professional Competencies. It’s been part of the curriculum for approximately seven years now, and the students respond positively to the case and panel discussion (which includes perspectives from a patient and health professionals from other disciplines). The proof is, of course, in how it translates into better care, but it’s a start!

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