Pearl RL, et al. JAMA Surg. 2018;doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2018.2702.

September 15, 2018
1 min read

Terminology matters in medical communication about obesity


Pearl RL, et al. JAMA Surg. 2018;doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2018.2702.

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People with obesity view language such as “obese person” as stigmatizing and prefer that health care providers use people-first language, such as “person with obesity,” when discussing weight, according to survey findings published in a research letter in JAMA Surgery.

Survey respondents also reported that discussing weight stigma helps them lose more weight, according to researchers

Rebecca L. Pearl, PhD, assistant professor of psychology of the department of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues reviewed data based on 97 questionnaires completed by potential candidates for bariatric surgery (84 women, 13 men; mean age, 46.3 years) from 2015 to 2017. Questions asked were used to determine participants’ preferred terminology when discussing people with BMI greater than 30 kg/m2 and when describing the condition of having a BMI greater than 40 kg/m2. The questionnaire also asked about how potential weight bias affected participants’ emotional states and included questions about everyday discrimination in general.

Of the response options available in the questionnaire, participants selected “person with elevated BMI” as their most preferred term for people with BMI greater than 30 kg/m2. “Person with obesity” and “person with excess weight” were the second and third most preferred. For descriptions of BMI greater than 40 kg/m2, “class III obesity” was the highest rated, with “severe BMI” and “extreme BMI” the next-best options.

Discussing weight stigma was considered a potential impetus for losing more weight by 42 (43%) of the respondents, and such discussions were also positively associated with improving self-image for nearly half of the respondents (49%). Talking about weight stigma also increased comfort level with medical professionals and supported a better understanding between patient and physician for 50% and 40% of the respondents, respectively.

“Results of our study suggest that people-first language has strong support among patients seeking bariatric surgery,” the researchers wrote. “In addition, participants in this study wished to discuss weight stigma in weight-management settings. More research is needed to identify potential benefits to patients of discussing weight stigma in bariatric and other medical settings.” – by Phil Neuffer

Disclosures: Pearl reports she is a consultant for Weight Watchers. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.