A wiser language when talking about weight issue

Geralyn Spollett, associate clinical professor of Nursing at Yale University, written an interesting article about “Choosing words wisely when talking to patients about weight”. Political correctness is interfering with healthcare: for example recently researchers found that it was undesirable to use the term “fat”, “obese”, or “morbidly obese”. Two Yale Medical Group clinicians, Robert Bell, MD, and Geralyn Spollett, APRN, who commented on a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale. The study found the language that health care providers use when discussing their patients’ body weight can reinforce stigma, reduce motivation for weight loss, and potentially lead to avoidance of future medical appointments.

As Spollett says:

“It was an eye opener to see the words patients prefer to hear. We know that we’re supposed to talk directly and plainly, not use a lot of jargon, and ask questions to make sure the patient understands. But I think sometimes the kind of language that is used in the medical profession can seem offensive. The word “obese” is a medical word, but it has so many bad connotations that I never use that word with my patients. The provider must remind that this is a sensitive topic. It may be a difficult topic and sometimes the words used to describe weight issues sound unkind, but don’t be afraid to speak up. It is your health that counts.”

The researchers conducted a national survey of American adults, asking their opinions about 10 common terms used to describe excess body weight. The words “weight” and “unhealthy weight” were rated as the most preferable terminology for doctors to use when discussing excess weight, and “morbidly obese,” “fat” and “obese” were rated as the most stigmatizing and blaming. Additionally, 19 percent of adults reported they would avoid future medical appointments, and 21 percent says they would seek a new health care provider if they felt their doctor had stigmatized.

Likewise, Dr. Bell says he would not use the term “morbidly obese” with patients:

“It’s not politically correct, it’s almost redundant, and I don’t care for the term. As a primary care physician, you have to view the patient as having a lifelong relationship with you, so you have to use the right words and engender some trust. Practicing physicians who are sensitive in their terminology will find patients are more engaged in discussions about preventing obesity.”

In the meantime, Spollett says, if a patient is worried about how their doctor is discussing their weight issue, they should feel comfortable enough to address the problem with the doctor directly. Nothing should get in the way of addressing weight issues.


Written by

Graduated in Literature at the University of Eastern Piedmont, he's now studying anthropological and ethnological science at the University of Milano-Bicocca. Journalist and writer, he collaborated with many local newspapers and in the 2015 he published his first book "Qui non arriva la pioggia". In the 2017 published "Il peccato armeno, ovvero la binarietà del male".

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