Plus and Minus of Teaching Obesity Genetics

One of the suggested ways to address weight-bias and discrimination amongst health professionals could be to teach medical students more about the genetic determinants of excess weight.

But will this really reduce weight bias?

This question was now addressed by Persky and Eccleston from the US National Institutes of Health in a study just published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

One hundred and ten third and fourth year medical students were first randomly assigned to read about genetic or behavioral mechanisms of obesity, or a control topic.

Students were then asked to interact with an obese virtual patient in a virtual clinic.

While the group of students that had to read up on genetic determinants of obesity showed less negative stereotyping of the virtual patient, they were unfortunately also less likely to recommend weight loss, exercise or dietary consultations.

Thus, the authors caution, that highlighting genetic contributions to obesity may lead to both positive and negative outcomes.

Clearly, while reducing negative stereotyping may be a worthwhile goal, students also clearly need to understand that despite strong genetic influences, obesity is a multifactorial condition that can be modified by lifestyle modification and other treatments.

Or, as the authors point out,

Communication about the genetics of obesity should discuss the multi-factorial and non-deterministic nature of genetic risk“.

Edmonton, Alberta

Persky S, & Eccleston CP (2010). Impact of Genetic Causal Information on Medical Students’ Clinical Encounters with an Obese Virtual Patient: Health Promotion and Social Stigma. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine PMID: 21136226