Context: Negative bias toward patients with obesity is an ethical challenge in patient care. Several interventions to mitigate medical students' negative weight bias have been tried but none with an explicit focus on ethics. Here we describe first-year medical students' attitudes toward obesity and our effort to improve their attitudes through an innovative ethics session embedded within the required course, "Obesity, Nutrition, and Behavior Change," at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Methods: Precourse survey data were collected from 6 first-year cohorts (2012-2017). Before the ethics session, students take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure implicit weight bias. During the session, students discuss their classmates' personal struggles with weight, beliefs about causes of obesity, and the IAT results. They also watch and discuss video clips from the TV show House depicting negative weight bias. In addition, the 2017 cohort was surveyed 4 months later to evaluate the impact of different components of the session on students' self-reported attitudes.
Results: All students responded to the precourse survey. Across cohorts, IAT results revealed that 70% of students held a thin preference, 18% were neutral and 12% held a fat preference. Forty-seven percent had personally struggled with weight loss. While most students thought obesity is a disease (89%) or behavioral (88%), 74% thought it results from ignorance, and 28% thought people with obesity are lazy. Among the 59 respondents to the follow-up survey, 30% reported improvement in their attitudes after the session. Over 40% thought it was useful to discuss students' personal struggles with weight and the IAT and survey results, and over 70% thought the House video clips were useful.
Conclusions: Medical students have negative attitudes about obesity that are consistent over time. Providing opportunities for students to discuss their personal experiences and beliefs about obesity within an ethics framework and using popular media as a basis for discussion might improve their attitudes toward obesity.
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