Teaching Medical Students to Help Patients Manage Their Weight: Outcomes of an Eight-School Randomized Controlled Trial

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Oct;36(10):3000-3007. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06571-x. Epub 2021 Apr 9.


Background: Given the rising rates of obesity there is a pressing need for medical schools to better prepare students for intervening with patients who have overweight or obesity and for prevention efforts.

Objective: To assess the effect of a multi-modal weight management curriculum on counseling skills for health behavior change.

Design: A pair-matched, group-randomized controlled trial (2015-2020) included students enrolled in eight U.S. medical schools randomized to receive either multi-modal weight management education (MME) or traditional weight management education (TE).

Setting/participants: Students from the class of 2020 (N=1305) were asked to participate in an objective structured clinical examination (OSCE) focused on weight management counseling and complete pre and post surveys. A total of 70.1% of eligible students (N=915) completed the OSCE and 69.3% (N=904) completed both surveys.

Interventions: The MME implemented over three years included a web-based course, a role-play classroom exercise, a web-patient encounter with feedback, and an enhanced clerkship experience with preceptors trained in weight management counseling (WMC). Counseling focused on the 5As (Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist, Arrange) and patient-centeredness.

Measurements: The outcome was student 5As WMC skills assessed using an objective measure, an OSCE, scored using a behavior checklist, and a subjective measure, student self-reported skills for performing the 5As.

Results: Among MME students who completed two of three WMC components compared to those who completed none, exposure was significantly associated with higher OSCE scores and self-reported 5A skills.

Limitations: Variability in medical schools requiring participation in the WMC curriculum.

Conclusions: This trial revealed that medical students struggle with delivering weight management counseling to their patients who have overweight or obesity. Medical schools, though restrained in adding curricula, should incorporate should incorporate multiple WMC curricula components early in medical student education to provide knowledge and build confidence for supporting patients in developing individualized plans for weight management.

Nih trial registry number: R01-194787.

Keywords: medical school curriculum; medical student behaviors; objective structured clinical examination; randomized controlled trial; weight management counseling.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Body Weight Maintenance*
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Schools, Medical
  • Students, Medical*