Associations between medical students' beliefs about obesity and clinical counseling proficiency

BMC Obes. 2019 Feb 4;6:5. doi: 10.1186/s40608-018-0222-4. eCollection 2019.


Background: Despite evidence that biological and genetic factors contribute strongly to obesity, many healthcare providers still attribute obesity more to controllable behavioral issues rather than factors outside a person's control. We evaluated whether medical school students' beliefs about obesity correlate with ability to effectively counsel patients with obesity.

Methods: Clerkship-year medical students at NYU School of Medicine completed an Objective Structured Clinical Experience (OSCE) that tests ability to effectively counsel standardized actor-patients with obesity. We surveyed these students to evaluate their beliefs about the causes of obesity and their attitudes towards people with obesity. We analyzed correlations between student beliefs, negative obesity attitudes, and OSCE performance.

Results: The response rate was 60.7% (n = 71). When asked to rate the importance of individual factors, students rated controllable factors such as unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and overeating as more important than genetics or biological factors (p < 0.01). Believing obesity is caused by uncontrollable factors was negatively correlated with obesity bias (r = - 0.447; p < 0.0001). Believing that obesity is caused by factors within a person's control was negatively correlated with counseling skills (r = - 0.235; p < 0.05).

Conclusions: Attribution of obesity to external factors correlated with greater ability to counsel patients with obesity, suggesting that educating providers on the biological causes of obesity could help reduce bias and improve provider care.

Keywords: Obesity attitudes; Obesity counseling; Obesity education.