With obesity rates in the U.S. continuing to reach alarming rates, it seems there’s an even more urgent need for health professionals to be up to the task of caring for those who struggle with their weight. However, a new trend is resulting in some patients being turned by their doctors because they’re too overweight.
According to recent article from CNN, a number of doctors are reportedly turning away patients who weigh more than a set number of pounds for various reasons – from inadequate equipment to being unable to properly care for patients of a larger size.
One patient interviewed for the story, Ida Davidson, said that on her second visit to a new primary doctor they turned her away, saying couldn’t care for her because she weighed more than 200 pounds.
That physician was Dr. Helen Carter, who practices in Worcester, Massachusetts, and began screening out obese patients last spring after some of her staff members were injured while apparently caring for or assisting overweight patients.
At first reaction, turning away patients based on their weight seems like discrimination. But in fact, it’s not. According to the American Medical Association, it’s not illegal as patients and doctors have the right to exercise freedom in choosing with whom to enter a patient-physician relationship. Because doctors have this right, they can deny patients who exceed a certain weight limit if they feel they’re unable to care for them or they’re a liability to their practice.
Dr. Carter explained that the patients already under her care who now exceed 200 pounds are considered “grandfathered in” and she won’t turn them away. But for new patients, she’s set the weight limit at 200 pounds. As a result, she says she’s had at last two people be very motivated to lose weight in order to be accepted as a new patient.
The primary reason for Dr. Carter’s new screening process, she says, is that there are there are better alternatives out there for obese patients. One such alternative is a nearby obesity center at the University of Massachusetts that Dr. Carter believes is much better staffed and has more resources for treating overweight patients.
While turning away patients remains a rare occurrence, the fact that an estimated one-third of all U.S. adult are obese makes this trend all-the-more concerning. The last thing our country needs is doctors turning away patients who are willingly coming in to monitor their health.
Dr. Carolyn Ross, MD, is a consultant on eating disorders for The Ranch and integrative medicine for treatment facilities across the country, and the owner of her own weight loss treatment and counseling program in Colorado. Dr. Ross says she has never turned someone away for weight, but that there are some specific issues that are weight-related that may be difficult to handle in a regular doctor’s office.
Some such issues might include whether or not the exam table safely supports a client; if patient gowns and exam chairs are large enough; and whether specific equipment is needed for a larger client for certain types of exams.
“These are real issues. I have had to address these issues in the treatment centers where I’ve worked,” said Dr. Ross. “Usually these issues, however, apply to morbidly obese clients, not those closer to 200 pounds.”
Ross also pointed out that turning away overweight patients as a means to “motivate” them toward weight loss is unwise and may be discouraging to some people. “Despite the fact that this is not illegal, I do think it’s difficult to justify given that most Americans are overweight or obese,” she said. “There are many studies that show that physicians don’t discriminate against the obese, but anecdotally, many obese patients have had the experience of feeling less welcome and less cared for in their physician’s offices, which is a shame.”