Page last updated at 01:20 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 02:20 UK

Training cuts student medics 'anti-fat' prejudice

Man measuring his waist
Rates of obesity are rising

Students training to enter the health service need better teaching in order to prevent discrimination against obese patients, a study suggests.

Researchers said previous work had found high levels of "anti-fat prejudice" among health professionals.

But a trial of 159 students, reported in the Obesity journal, found this prejudice could easily be influenced.

Teaching about the effect of genes and the environment on obesity was key to cutting discrimination, it reported.

Over the past decade, prejudice among the public towards overweight people has increased by 66%, the international team of researchers said.

Making people feel bad about their condition is not going to help
Dr Kerry O'Brien, study leader

Some studies have shown that among those working in the health professions, including doctors and nurses, the rate of prejudice is even higher than in the general population.

In the latest study, 159 students taking a seven-week course on public health, some of whom were training to be nurses, were split into three groups.

One was taught solely about diet and exercise being the main cause and treatment for obesity.

And another group was taught about uncontrollable reasons for obesity - such as genetics and environmental factors such as junk-food advertising.

The third "control" group was taught about alcohol.

Subconscious prejudice

They then underwent a series of tests to measure subconscious or "implicit" prejudice about obesity, as well as outspoken or "explicit" views.

The results showed that those who had been taught a standard obesity programme based on diet and exercise scored 27% higher on implicit or subconscious measures of prejudice.

But those taught about genetic and environmental causes scored 27% lower on a test of implicit prejudice and there was a drop in scores on the explicit discrimination tests.

Study leader Dr Kerry O'Brien, a lecturer at the University of Manchester, said being taught solely about diet and exercise implied that obese people were just lazy and gluttonous, but to a large extent weight status is inherited and health professionals needed to be aware of other influences.

He said "blaming the individual" was not always obvious but could mean doctors or nurses spent less time with obese patients or did not take their problems as seriously.

"The key is not to be stigmatising these patients.

"Making people feel bad about their condition is not going to help."

He added: "Obese people are constantly fighting their physiology and environment.

"If professionals keep this in mind it may help in not stigmatising their clients."

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