A 64 year old woman recently passed away on May 11, 2018. Ellen Maud Bennett had been feeling unwell for years, and when seeking out medical treatment, her doctors did not offer any suggestions or support beyond commenting on her weight and suggesting she lose weight. Year later, she was finally diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was given days to live.
Her obituary is going viral and declares that larger women, “should advocate for their wellbeing and not buy into the idea that fat is the only relevant health issue.”
Bennett wanted people to know in her obituary that large women should advocate for their health and not just believe that fat is the only problem that can affect their health.
As her obituary and her lasting message gather an audience, it shines light on the persevering weight-based discrimination in the medical community.
Ximena Salas, who directs Obesity Canada, says medical professionals do not have proper training to be able to provide sufficient care for obese patients. Therefore they often share the fat shaming mentality of broader society which can impede their treatment of larger patients and cloud their judgment about what may be wrong with a patient.
Unfortunately, doctors can be so focused on a patient’s weight that it can be hard for them to dig deeper than the surface and search for other health concerns that may be ailing a patient who comes in to discuss a health issue. This may have been the case of Ellen Bennett.
Large patients are often told to lose weight if they are feeling unwell. Doctors see a larger or obese patient and automatically attribute being overweight to their sickness instead of doing full research on other possible diagnosis. In this way, they could miss other diagnosis or underlying health issues.
Sadly, research shows that obese patients receive inferior testing and treatment in comparison with smaller patients. Health care providers need to come to terms with their biases on weight and make sure each patient is being thoroughly assessed and receiving competent and thorough care.
This is not to say that lifestyle factors like eating right and exercising do not help prevent many medical problems. However, the only lifestyle factor our society tends to demoralize is obesity.
Not only do obese patients face discrimination by providers, but even a trip to the doctor’s office can be filled with discrimination and obstacles.
For example, medical facilities have narrow and unaccommodating chairs and even gowns that may not fully cover larger patient’s bodies.
Providers need to move from scolding larger patients to providing unbiased and nonjudgmental comprehensive care. Providers need to understand that having the stigma of being overweight has its own health concerns.
Overweight patients can have anxiety about going to their providers when they deal with shame and stereotypes in the medical community. They may face disrespect, embarrassment, and stereotyping from their doctors and have distrust in them.
They may even avoid going to the doctor altogether because of the fear of being shamed due to their weight. Evidence suggests people avoid healthcare for many reasons-shame and stigma being one. Avoiding the doctor when you have a healthcare crisis or are not feeling well can be bad for your health.
Bennett let her last words on her obituary be a plea for change in the health care community. She pleas for a switch to releasing the judgment towards larger patients and objectively talking and considering whether extra weight is influencing a patient’s health.
There is currently a private human rights bill to offer protection for overweight people and people with dwarfism that will be introduced this spring for the second tome.
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