Research published last year (Dec 5, 2011) in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, shows that from 1999 through 2008, only 22% of parents of children with BMIs in the 85th percentile or higher reported that a doctor or health professional ever mentioned that their child was overweight.
Oddly, the same research shows that doctors were more likely to say something to parents of overweight non-white and poor children. This backs up what also happens with adults. One study shows that fewer than half of obese adults report being advised to lose weight by health care professionals.
This is disturbing on many levels, such as:
- Various studies show that many parents seriously underestimate the severity of their child’s weight problem. If doctors say nothing, important education moments for parents are lost.
- Combating excessive weight and poor lifestyles habits is easier for younger children. Research shows that as kids age, bad eating and activity habits are more likely to become lifelong bad habits. If a doctor says something now, a family may get the chance to work on improving habits, before poor habits become ingrained.
- Excessive weight and obesity does affects a child’s health, often for a lifetime. If doctors were following through, and doing their job to keep kids healthy, then they’d say something to parents.
- This practice emphasizes what the United States is already doing — making the topic of weight taboo. Taboo is not okay when it comes to health, as kids may end up suffering because of it.
In an NPR piece, Yale University psychologist Rebecca Puhl, points out that weight disconnect between doctors and patients is extremely common, with just one-third of doctors discussing weight loss with patients. That means two-thirds of patients never get the chance to discuss weight loss with their doctor.
To be fair, many doctors have reasons for not bringing up weight and weight loss.
Research shows patients aren’t listening anyhow. For example, even when their doctor brings up weight a patient may not listen or accept advice. When doctors bring up childhood obesity, unless they manage to sugar-coat it, many parents flare up, getting angry, not accepting the facts. In general, many studies also show that parents simply refuse to believe their child could be overweight.
Other reasons mentioned in the NPR piece, about why doctors may avoid weight discussions include:
- Doctors don’t want to scare off patients.
- Doctors don’t have enough time with each patients.
- Doctors often haven’t been trained about how to discuss obesity in medical school.
- Doctors say they’re frustrated because they think many patients do know about healthy eating and exercise, but choose to eat poorly and not exercise anyway.
Also we can’t just blame doctors. As Dr. Cynthia Ferrier in the NPR piece points out, “It’s as unreasonable to say I didn’t quit smoking because my doctor didn’t tell me to as it is to say I didn’t lose weight because my doctor didn’t tell me to. Everybody knows you shouldn’t smoke, and everybody knows you should be at a healthy weight. It’s not a mystery.”
I agree with that. Parents need to take control of their child’s health, not blame fast food, commercials and doctors for their child’s issues. That said, if every doctor who sees an overweight child, at the very least, takes the time to mention it, I think it would go a long way toward making weight a less taboo topic.
As parents we can try harder to trust that our child’s doctor means well, not take the weight discussion personally and do what we can to form a healthy lifestyle plan for our kids.
What do you think? Has your child’s pediatrician ever brought up weight issues with you? How did you respond?