Some Patients Say Doctors' Fixation on Weight Has Damaged Their Health

July 28th 2017

Ngozi Ahanotu

Why are patients being fat shamed at the doctor?

In the United States, an estimated 65 percent of patients are told by their doctor to purse some type of weight loss treatment. There are, of course, those who could stand to shed some pounds, but some patients and doctors say a fixation on weight leads to misdiagnoses and poor health care outcomes.

fatshaming face palm

It’s been noted before that doctors tend to take women’s pain less seriously because of unconscious gender bias. Plus-size model Elly Mayday shared her misdiagnosis experience with StyleLikeU.

“I was working as a flight attendant and had been for 2 years when I started to really experience the pain. It was my lower back, and they would tell me to workout my core. ‘That’s why your back is hurting, it’s because your core is not strong enough. You don’t feel good because you’re overweight.’ That wasn’t my problem.”

“I’d have a yeast infection or a urinary tract infection and they would give me antibiotics or painkillers and send me home," she continued. Finally, when a doctor opened up and took patients, I got in there and she sent me in for a CT Scan. They saw a cyst on my ovaries and they couldn’t see my left ovary. They were like, ‘It’s just a cyst.' I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘It’s just a cyst, it’s not a big deal.' But it was a big deal. Five days later. they diagnosed me with stage three ovarian cancer.”

People like Mayday have shared countless stories of having their concerns dismissed at the doctor’s office, or being shamed or misdiagnosed by their doctors because of their weight.

Dr. Scott Kahan told Self Magazine that doctors have room to improve here.

“Some doctors are egregiously nasty and inappropriate with their larger patients. A patient of mine once went to urgent care short of breath only to be told that it was because she had ‘too much fat on her chest.’ Later, at the emergency room, they discovered she had a pulmonary embolism and needed anticoagulants. She’s lucky to be alive.”

Samantha Harvel, a 20-year-old college student, told ATTN: about an experience she had with an ENT (ears, nose, and throat) doctor three years ago.


A post shared by Samantha Harvel (@sammysam2121) on


“I was 5’3 and 180 pounds or so at the time," she said. "I had been having trouble with horrible snoring and sleep apnea, so I was looking to get my tonsils taken out. I had strep throat a lot as a child so this had been an option for a while. We went to an ENT doctor to schedule a tonsillectomy. He didn't even examine me or ask about medical history. He came into the room and told me that the only thing that would help me was losing weight immediately. Thirty pounds, to be exact.”

“I felt horrible," she continued. "I knew that I was large, but I had never thought of myself as huge until that point in my life. Ever since then I have associated my body with so much shame.”

A year later, Harvel was still having issues with her throat and she couldn't take it anymore.

“I had an anxiety breakdown caused by the sleep apnea and was scared of physical symptoms caused by the swollen tonsils. I was convinced I was choking at this point. My family finally found a doctor who would take them out. The ENT who took out my tonsils said they were some of the biggest he'd ever seen. My breakdown ended, but although I still suffer from lingering symptoms, I haven't snored a single night since. I’m about 50 pounds heavier than I was at my first visit.”


A post shared by Samantha Harvel (@sammysam2121) on


It’s happened to others in her family as well, Harvel said.

“My sister had a hormone imbalance. Every doctor she visited always assumed that her weight was only through her own fault until her gynecologist tested her and found she had PCOS. It is wrong to immediately assume that being overweight causes these issues. If a doctor is respectful, understanding, and not demeaning, telling their patient to lose weight shouldn't be a problem as long as they have a good reason.”

Harvel said her current doctor has been "encouraging" whenever she visits, but not all large patients are so lucky.

Over the last few years, doctors have been turning away obese patients for various reasons, saying they’re unable to offer the best services or their facility isn’t equipped to deal with their size.

“Medical professionals’ underlying belief systems, driven by our thin-obsessed, anti-fat culture, can and do make their interactions with patients with obesity less productive," Dr. Kahan told ATTN:.