Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Many Doctors, And Most Journalists, Don't See Past the Fat

In case you missed it, a few days ago the New York Times ran a great piece on weight bias in medicine. The headline asked, "Why Do Obese Patients Get Worse Care? Many Doctors Don't See Past The Fat". The story detailed the fact that physicians and other health care professionals often fail to see past the weight and rather than treat the person and their concerns as they would any other, instead all of their ills are simply chalked up to being caused by obesity. As a consequence, not only does their treatment suffer, so too does their faith in medicine to the point where many people with obesity actively avoid going to the doctor.

There was a painful irony to the piece though. By calling people with obesity "obese patients", the New York Times was also not seeing past the fat.

People first language refers to the recognition that people cannot be their diseases. People can have diabetes, they're not diabetic. People can have arthritis, they're not arthritic. People can have cancer, they're not cancerous. And so too with obesity. People can have obesity, they cannot be obese.

The distinction matters. Not using people first language labels the individual by way of their medical condition, and when it comes to obesity, given the incredibly negative societal stereotypes associated with the word, labeling an individual as being obese carries with it real stigma.

At least part of the reason why many doctors don't see past the fat is that journalists, and society as a whole, don't see past the fat either and instead define and stereotype people by their obesity. While it's definitely a small step, if the New York Times (and other media outlets) actively adopted people first language for obesity in their style guides it would be a welcome and helpful change.