More Anti-Patient Bias Leaks Out

Office and Waiting Room

Childhood Obesity News has been looking at various aspects of the relationship between doctors and obesity. Sadly, a lot of physicians are themselves obese, and others are intolerant of obesity in their patients.

For National Public Radio, Joe Palca reported on “The Weight Of A Med Student’s Subconscious Bias,” using information gleaned from a study of students in North Carolina. Psychologists administered tests designed to reveal subconscious bias, and found plenty of it. Palca wrote:

Quite a few medical school students have something against obese people, and most of those who have such a bias are unaware of it… More than one-third of the students had a moderate to strong bias against obese people, as measured by the test, whereas only 17 percent had an anti-thin bias. Two-thirds of the students were unaware of their anti-fat bias.

Just like ordinary citizens, the doctors-in-training may feel that obese patients are lazy, unmotivated, and deficient in willpower. Though reluctant to generalize, the researchers can’t help but assume that other medical students in other states suffer from the same kind of unthinking prejudice, and they believe that any doctor’s education should include “strategies for recognizing these subconscious biases and guarding against their affecting medical judgments.” This is important because it is difficult for a patient to trust a doctor while sensing unvoiced criticism.

Last month, a University of New Mexico (UNM) professor, teaching at New York University, managed to ignite a storm of controversy. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who ironically teaches a course in Human Emotions to postgraduate students, used the social media platform Twitter to send a message to all prospective academic superstars:

Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth

When media backlash began to arrive, he removed the original tweet and substituted two others:

My sincere apologies to all for that idiotic, impulsive, and badly judged tweet. It does not reflect my true views, values, or standards… Obviously my previous tweet does not represent the selection policies of any university, or my own selection criteria.

Laura Beck explicated for Jezebel:

The cruelty and inaccuracy of statements like Millers can’t be emphasized enough, especially considering that many fat people read his tweet and it reinforced the societal message that our weight is our worth — not just physically, but mentally, as well.

From Cardiff University, Chris Chambers of the School of Psychology wrote to Miller’s academic superior at UNM:

This is an extraordinary public statement from a member of the academic community. I would like to know the extent to which this statement reflects the policy of UNM Psychology regarding the appointment criteria for PhD students.

Chambers characterized Miller’s tweet as bigotry-promoting, as well as unethical and offensive. Other academics who reacted called him names and distanced themselves from his sentiments. Apparently, Miller tried to excuse the statement as being part of a research project, rather than a heartfelt condemnation of overweight students. But if that were true, he would have been in even more trouble, because the rule at NYU is, any research involving human subjects has to be approved by a board first.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Weight Of A Med Student’s Subconscious Bias,”, 05/23/13
Source: “NYU Prof to Obese PhD Applicants: Thanks, But No Fatties Allowed,” Jezebel, 06/03/13_
Source: “Opinion,”, 06/13/13
Image by Steve Snodgrass.

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