It can backfire when doctors make a show of their own healthy living

Doctor runningBy Alex Fradera

Doctors who want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy should keep themselves in reasonable shape if they intend to advise their patients to do the same. Indeed, some medical organisations explicitly encourage their physicians not only to stay fit, but to make sure that their patients know it, thereby role-modelling the recommended behaviours. However, new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that doctors who promote their own fitness may actually scare away overweight patients who are most in need of help.

Researchers Lauren Howe and Benoît Monin lifted real-life MD profiles from the website of an American medical group, and sorted them into two types. Fitness-focused profiles explicitly stated that the doctor prioritised staying healthy and active, or cited two or more active hobbies like hiking and biking; meanwhile the other profiles didn’t emphasise fitness.

Howe and Monin recruited 143 people who had some concerns about their weight and a BMI over 25, the cutoff for being considered overweight. The participants viewed and then rated five fitness-focused doctor profiles and five comparison profiles. The participants expressed a greater suspicion that fitness-focused doctors would be judgmental towards patients with unhealthy habits, and they said they would be less willing to choose such a doctor as their own physician.

While it’s no good alienating prospective patients, nor would faking unhealthy habits be a good solution, so Howe and Monin looked at some other options. First, they looked at adding a caveat to the fitness-focused profiles, for example “I try to maintain a regular exercise routine” was followed by “(though it’s hard to find the time and energy)”. But although overweight participants found these profiles somewhat less judgmental, it didn’t change their reluctance to select them as a health provider. But a second tweak was more successful: extending the fit doctors’ profiles with a non-judgmental phrase like “everyone has their own definition of a healthy life and what it means to be healthy for them” made them the most preferred option.

Generally, are doctors feeling a pressure to promote themselves as healthy? Howe and Monin note that the profiles on the medical website they surveyed did show a tendency to talk up fitness: nearly a third of profiles of were fitness-focused, and only 2 out of nearly 100 mentioned any struggles with keeping healthy. In truth, the average doctor is more unhealthy than the US general population in a number of areas – exercise, weight and daily consumption of fruit and vegetables, with smoking being a notable exception. But you wouldn’t assume this based on how they present themselves, which may be why, in a survey ran by Howe and Monin, respondents assumed that doctors are healthier on every front. Perhaps physicians should prescribe themselves a healthy dose of honesty.

Healthier Than Thou? “Practicing What You Preach” Backfires by Increasing Anticipated Devaluation

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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