Have you ever had your doctor tell you to stop smoking, only to leave his office and see him outside lighting a cigarette? Some doctors have a tendency to prescribe certain remedies that seem hypocritical to their patients, while others often treat a symptom rather than the disease.
This is by no means a charge on doctors’ expertise or ability to help others. Rather, it is a question of the influence they have over their patients and how best to help others with their knowledge. For instance, when dealing with obesity, doctors can make a much greater difference depending on their beliefs.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that doctors can have a very large impact in the way they help patients who suffer from obesity.
The study found that doctors’ beliefs about the causes of obesity directly impacted the advice they gave their patients. For instance, a doctor who believed that obesity is a cause of overeating was more likely to advocate portion control, more physical activity, and a reduced consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
The study highlights a disparity that exists between the medical knowledge doctors receive and the way they prescribe that knowledge. The notion that doctors often treat the symptom rather than the disease becomes even more apparent in this study.
When treating obese or overweight patients, some doctors may advise that their patients switch to low-fat or low-calorie foods instead of what they’re used to eating. Similarly, many doctors advise that patients opt for diet beverages instead of the regular, sugar-sweetened drinks. In these instances, the doctor is treating a symptom of obesity (weight gain) rather than the cause.
Instead, doctors can choose to help patients overcome obesity altogether. By advocating for smaller food portions, reducing processed foods, eliminating sugary beverages altogether and increasing physical activity, doctors can provide their patients with the tools to combat their disease.
The study notes that doctors have historically neglected or underestimated the effects that nutrition can have on a person’s health and well-being. However, the study notes that “Improved primary care physician education related to the causes of obesity may be a feasible strategy for increasing the frequency of nutritional counselling, particularly concrete dietary tips that primary care physicians can easily share with their patients.”
If doctors were to equip themselves with more useful tips and suggestions for obesity prevention, they could in turn pass that knowledge onto their patients. The study found great value in some nutritional recommendations doctors can make, such as “reading nutrition labels, avoiding high-calorie ingredients when cooking, avoiding high calorie menu items when eating out, reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and reducing portion size.”
Ultimately, a doctor’s ability to help is only as good as his or her knowledge, and the ability to communicate that knowledge clearly. The smoking example is one that poignantly illustrates the issue at hand. In order to help patients lose weight, doctors must first acknowledge that the solution to obesity is through healthy eating and exercise, not in a pill. Only then can they impart their knowledge and see their patients live a healthy lifestyle.