Can Television Shows Help Prevent Negative Bias Toward Patients with Obesity?

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Watching episodes of the television medical drama House resulted in a significant shift in perceptions of obesity among medical students.
Watching episodes of the television medical drama House resulted in a significant shift in perceptions of obesity among medical students.

A new study published in the AMA Journal of Ethics made an interesting discovery when they surveyed first-year medical students about the topic of obesity.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, found that although the majority of students showed a bias for thin individuals, after watching the medical drama House, a striking 70% claimed that it was influential in changing their perceptions toward obesity.

This is significant because negative attitudes toward obesity are, unfortunately, common among physicians, and many interventions in the past have failed to change those perceptions.

The video clips used in the study came from 2 different episodes of House, which followed an adult male and a preteenaged girl with obesity.

"[N]egative weight bias is associated with misperceptions about causes of obesity," wrote the study authors. "[T]elevision and movies can be effective in fostering humanistic, compassionate, and person-centered orientations in medical students."

Negative weight bias can be harmful for patients. Oftentimes, obese patients are less likely to gain access to surgery because of bias. What is more, medical students who have struggled with their weight are actually more likely to harbor negative attitudes for patients with obesity.

The investigators also tested students' perceptions after sharing their personal stories with each other about their weight. Interestingly, the personal stories did not come close to the effect of the video clips.

"Of particular concern is that medical students do not seem aware of their negative biases," the authors wrote. "[Also] a significant minority believed that laziness and ignorance play a part [in obesity]. This troubling finding is consistent with national data indicating that a large percentage of medical students believes lack of willpower is an important contributor to obesity."

Although more research is needed, this study shows evidence that relevant television show video clips have the potential to have a meaningful effect on students' perceptions when it comes to weight bias.

Reference

Geller G, Watkins PA. Addressing medical students' negative bias toward patients with obesity through ethics education. AMA J Ethics. 2018;20(10):E948-E959.

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