Avoiding the term 'obesity': an experimental study of the impact of doctors' language on patients' beliefs

Patient Educ Couns. 2009 Aug;76(2):260-4. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2008.12.016. Epub 2009 Jan 23.


Objective: GPs sometimes use euphemisms rather than medical terms. The present study aimed to explore the relative impact of using the term 'obese' compared to GPs' preferred euphemism on patients' beliefs about the problem.

Methods: A cross sectional survey followed by an experimental study was used with two conditions: the term 'obese' versus the GPs' preferred euphemism. In the cross sectional survey, GPs' (n=19) described their preferred use of term. In the experimental study, patients (n=449) from one General Practice in West London then completed a set of ratings about their beliefs following a vignette using either the term 'obese' or the GPs' preferred euphemism.

Results: The first stage of the study showed that GPs avoided using the term 'obese' and preferred to use a euphemism. The most commonly used euphemism was 'your weight may be damaging your health'. The second stage showed that the term 'obese' made patients believe that the problem had more serious consequences and made them feel more anxious and upset than when the same symptoms were labelled using the euphemism. When analysed according to the patient's own BMI, however, the results showed that the term 'obese' had a greater emotional impact than the euphemism only on patients who were not obese; obese patients found the euphemism more upsetting.

Conclusion: GPs avoid using the term 'obese' for fear of upsetting patients. This term, whilst making the problem appear more serious is only more upsetting for non-obese patients.

Practice implications: GPs choice of term therefore needs to reflect whether they want the patients to be upset or whether they want them to accept the seriousness of their problem.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Image*
  • Communication*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Language
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical
  • Obesity*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians, Family / statistics & numerical data
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Vocabulary*