Doctors' Weight Matters

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For many doctors, it's tough enough to talk to an adult about a weight problem, let alone a child.

Apparently, that's an even bigger challenge if the doctor is fat, or thin. Some skinny pediatricians worry they'll seem unsympathetic. Their overweight colleagues, meanwhile, risk seeming hypocritical when they give advice to chubby children.

That's what a pair of studies surveying pediatricians in North Carolina suggests. In fact, many children's doctors "would rather treat strep throat than obesity," said Dr. Reginald Washington, a Denver pediatrician who co-chairs an obesity task force for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Only 12 percent of the doctors surveyed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said they felt very effective in treating overweight children. The pediatricians also said they felt better able to treat asthma or prevent sexually transmitted diseases than treat or prevent obesity.

"I think that virtually all pediatricians feel frustrated with it because it's such a difficult problem to treat," said Dr. Terrill Bravender, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke
University and the medical director for Duke's Eating Disorders Program.

Most doctors simply evaluate the patient, diagnose and treat the illness. "And obesity is much more complicated than that," Bravender said.

The studies also found that a physician's own weight could affect his comfort level in counseling an overweight child. Even more surprising - nearly half of the doctors surveyed who are overweight didn't know they were.

"It may mean that pediatricians are seeing so many overweight people around them that their standards have become skewed," said Dr. Eliana Perrin, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"If so, they may be less able to diagnose overweight patients as (overweight)," Perrin said. "However it is also possible that pediatricians can competently diagnose others as overweight but fail in this regard when looking at themselves."