Doctors forced to tread lightly when speaking of patient weight problems - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Ahwatukee 2012 Medical

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Doctors forced to tread lightly when speaking of patient weight problems

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Posted: Friday, September 28, 2012 7:45 am

I just read an article published in the International Journal of Obesity that discussed the impact of doctors’ words on patients when talking about obesity.

It encouraged doctors to use non-stigmatizing language to broach the touchy topic — like “healthy weight” instead of “morbidly obese” — and to avoid words/phrases that sounded full of blame.

“Fat” and “obese” carried the most sting whereas “overweight,” “high BMI,” and “weight problem” carried the least.

I applauded the researchers for continuing to improve patient/doctor relationships and for pushing for ongoing health conversations.

I was dubious as to the long-term benefit of such namby-pamby tap dancing. I also feel badly for physicians. What a show — they’re about to step into the room with an obese patient and not only have to wrap their minds around meds, blood profiles, risks, diseases, and the lot, but now we want them cherry-picking their words, too. I’m not advocating them being harsh about it, but good grief.

When I have a problem I haven’t come to terms with, it doesn’t matter how someone tiptoes around it, I’ll get mad and a little hurt no matter how they bring it up. I’ll blame the person speaking the words (the doc).

Unless I’m ready to own my own problem and have started to face it, I’ll just get mad. None of this is the fault of the doctor. It’s mine.

And even if the courageous sole who is stepping into my emotional mine field tries to navigate it safely, it won’t matter. Because I know what they are getting at regardless of language.

In the past, I’ve been offended by any word that even smelled like “fat” — curvy, round, tough, sturdy, womanly, earthy (yes, some poor guy once tried that one to wriggle out of a “Do I look fat?” question — I nearly slugged him), Reubenesque, full-figured (I felt like Jane Russell), voluptuous, heavy, stout, rugged, pioneering (what, like a pack animal?), big-boned, large-framed, oh, and chunky.

As shocking as some of those words are to any of us, don’t be too upset with the poor schmoes who said them — they were trapped and offering up any combination of words that didn’t make them an all-out liar. They were panicked.

I wanted to hear “skinny” but even if they’d said that, I’d have belted them for bald-faced lying to me. There was no winning.

Which brings me back to our poor docs. They can’t win these days. If they tiptoe around discussing an obese patient’s weight, they have to tread so lightly the message is barely perceptible.

If they are pointed about it, not hurtful but pointed, they risk losing the patient and maybe a torch-n-pitchfork crowd outside her office.

And let’s be honest, no matter today’s language, it’ll change. We are offended by “obese” today and we’ll be offended by “high BMI” tomorrow. Seriously, 20 years from now we’ll all be up in arms because we feel stigmatized by “unhealthy weight” and we’ll be demanding to be called “portly” instead.

The only way to quit being offended is to do something about the problem. Then the words won’t matter because they’ll have no power.


• NSCA certified personal trainer Shannon Sorrels has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA. Her Ahwatukee-based company, Physix LLC, works with Valley individuals and groups to improve their overall fitness. Reach her at (480) 528-5660 or visit

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