Want to Help Patients? Help Yourself First

A new study finds that physicians' own health may play a key role when it comes to counseling patients on lifestyle issues such as diet and exercise.

Physician’s confidence in their ability to counsel patients on a healthy diet and exercise may be related to their own personal habits, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center in Ann Arbor, MI.

The study, which was published in Preventative Cardiology, identified the three factors that predict confidence in counseling: the doctor’s own exercise time, being overweight, and if the doctor had undergone adequate training in counseling patients. Physicians’ own health, it seems, play a key role when it comes to patient counseling.

“Living a healthy lifestyle themselves translates into a more believable message to their patients,” said lead author Michael Howe, MD, chief medical resident at University of Michigan Health System, in a press release. “Physicians are busy, especially during their training; but eating healthy foods and exercising regularly may result in better personal health as well as improved patient care.”

Howe and colleagues surveyed physicians regarding their personal lifestyle behavior, perceived confidence, and frequency of counseling patients regarding lifestyle behaviors. Findings from the 183 responses they received were as follows:

  • A majority of attending physicians talked to patients about a healthy diet compared to just 36% percent of interns and residents.
  • Attending physicians reported taking better care of themselves than trainees whose diets were heavier in fast food.
  • Both attending and resident physicians reported low levels of confidence in their ability to effectively counsel patients regarding healthy lifestyle habits. However, greater degrees of self-confidence for counseling were seen with increased levels of personal exercise.
  • Attending physicians were more likely to exercise four or more days a week and more than 150 minutes a week than trainees; 69% talked to patients about exercise compared to only 38% of residents who provided exercise counseling
  • Few trainees or attending physicians were confident in their ability to change patients’ behavior even though it’s well-known that weight loss can prevent or alleviate obesity-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.
  • Factors that predicted confidence in counseling included the doctor’s own exercise time, being overweight, and if the doctor had adequate training in counseling, the study showed.
  • Adequate training was the strongest predictor for confidence in talking about healthy eating habits, the survey showed.

With the prevalence of obesity among adults in the U.S. increasing, “many physicians lack confidence in their ability to counsel patients regarding lifestyle,” says senior author Elizabeth Jackson, MD. “An emphasis on healthy diet and exercise counseling is an important part of medical education for physicians of all levels.”

For more information:

  • Preventative CardiologyPatient-Related Diet and Exercise Counseling: Do Providers’ Own Lifestyle Habits Matter
  • New York TimesTeaching Doctors About Nutrition and Diet