Do physicians underrecognize obesity?

South Med J. 2014 Jun;107(6):356-60. doi: 10.14423/01.SMJ.0000450707.44388.0c.


Objectives: A physician's advice is among the strongest predictors of efforts toward weight management made by obese patients, yet only a minority receives such advice. One contributor could be the physician's failure to recognize true obesity. The objectives of this study were to assess physicians' ability to recognize obesity and to identify factors associated with recognition and documentation of obesity.

Methods: Internal medicine residents and attending physicians at three academic urban primary care clinics and their adult patients participated in a study using recognition and documentation of patient obesity as the main measures.

Results: A total of 52 physicians completed weight assessments for 400 patients. The mean patient age was 51 years, 56% were women, 77% were Hispanic, and 67% had one or more obesity-related comorbidity. There were 192 (48%) patients, of whom 66% were correctly identified by physicians as being obese, 86% of those with a body mass index (BMI) ≥ 35, but only 49% of those with a BMI of 30 to 34.9 (P < 0.0001). Fewer obese Hispanic patients were identified than were non-Hispanic patients (62% vs 76%; P = 0.03). No physician characteristics were significantly associated with recognition of obesity. Physicians documented obesity as a problem for 51% of patients. Attending physicians documented obesity more frequently than did residents (64% vs 43%, odds ratio 2.5, 95% confidence interval 1.3-4.6) and normal-weight physicians documented obesity more frequently than overweight physicians (58% vs 41%, odds ratio 2.0, 95% confidence interval 1.0-4.0). Documentation was more common for patients with a BMI ≥ 35 and for non-Hispanics. Documentation was not more common for patients with obesity-related comorbidities.

Conclusions: Physicians have difficulty recognizing obesity unless patients' BMI is ≥ 35. Training physicians to recognize true obesity may increase rates of documentation, a first step toward treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Body Mass Index
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / diagnosis*
  • Physicians / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires