Obesity: What’s in a Name?

The News Section of this week’s edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) features an article by Roger Collier, in which I am extensively quoted with regard to wether or not health professionals should use the term “obesity”.

Regular readers of these pages will be quite familiar with my views on this issu. Readers may also recall that there is indeed a medical definition of obesity and that this condition has long had its own code in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD 10 E66.0).

Here a few quotes from the CMAJ article:

Doctors are also aware that patients don’t like to be labelled as obese, even if the label is accurate. Dr. Arya Sharma, chair for cardiovascular obesity research and management at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says he never refers to a patient as an obese individual, which implies they are defined by their condition. Instead, he will use phrases such as “person with obesity.” He also prefaces the word “obese” with “medically.”

“When you put the word ‘medically’ in front of it, it implies you are talking about a medical condition,” says Sharma, who is also the scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.

In a recent paper, Sharma explored historical approaches to classifying obesity. Some descriptive terms once used in medicine, he noted, were far from kind. “Although some earlier descriptions of obesity used less pejorative synonyms such as stout and corpulent (meaning excessively fat), other terms such as mammoth, monstrous and grotesque clearly reflect societal stigmatization against the obese individual and, although the stigma remains, these terms have long been abandoned,” he wrote.

Though he takes care not to offend patients, Sharma advocates for the use of the word “obesity” because it has a precise clinical definition. In fact, he was one of the few founding members of the Canadian Obesity Network who insisted the word be included in the organization’s name. Others, Sharma says, feared it would repel sponsors and harm funding, and suggested names along the lines of “The Healthy Network.”

Sharma also says the word “obesity” should be entered into medical records if a person’s BMI is 30 kg/m2 or higher. To just record the BMI, he says, would be akin to recording a patient’s blood pressure without noting the presence of hypertension.

Some health experts believe the stigma associated with certain conditions can have a positive effect, serving as a powerful motivator for people to improve their health. But when it comes to obesity, Sharma says, stigma does nothing but harm. It can deter people from seeking medical care and lead to depression, anxiety, poor body image and suicidal thoughts.

“These are concrete health risks,” says Sharma. “It’s not just about not being kind to people.”

But of course not everyone agrees with these views.

The article goes on to quote a Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, who has the following views with regard to stigma (at least in the context of addiction):

In an article titled “In Praise of Stigma,” she argued that stigma reflects a societal norm and can motivate people to change their behaviour. Though “stigma abolitionists” have good intentions, for the most part, Satel wrote that the fear of attributing blame for destructive behaviour can itself be destructive. There is much about addiction that is voluntary, she writes, and to dispel the concept of willpower will only deter the recovery process.

“There is nothing unethical — and everything natural and socially adaptive — about condemning the reckless and harmful behaviours that addicts commit,” she wrote. “This need not negate our sympathy for them or our duty to provide care.”

I would beg to argue that I yet to see any evidence in favour of the notion that societal stigma is an effective tool in getting people to live healthier. If this was true, given the widespread bias and discrimination that people with excess weight experience everyday, we should truly be a nation of rakes.

I wonder what my readers have to say about this.

For a link to the full article click here

Edmonton, Alberta

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Sharma AM, & Kushner RF (2009). A proposed clinical staging system for obesity. International journal of obesity (2005), 33 (3), 289-95 PMID: 19188927