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Women Docs Practice What They Preach

This is particularly true when it comes to nutrition and weight loss, study says

TUESDAY, Jan. 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Ever wonder if doctors take their own advice? If your physician is a woman, and the advice involves diet, nutrition, and weight loss, there's a good chance she practices what she preaches.

In a survey of 3,500 female physicians from across the United States, researchers found that most women doctors counsel patients on diet and nutrition based on their own lifestyle practices. They are also more likely to offer such advice over and above any other type of preventive health counseling, like quitting smoking or getting enough sleep.

"Doctors have healthy [habits], and those with the healthiest [habits] are most likely to be motivated to pursue these issues with their patients. We've found this every place we've looked, and it's very important," says study author Dr. Erica Frank, of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

The study appears in the February issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Although 46 percent of the doctors believed discussing nutrition with their patients was important -- and an equal number believed the same true about weight loss -- only 21 percent reported having any additional training in these areas.

Almost all the doctors, however, said nutrition and weight loss issues were important in their own lives, and that influence carried over into their practices, the researchers say.

This finding dovetails with an earlier report in the September 2000 edition of Archives of Family Medicine. There Frank and colleagues found that doctors' ability to motivate patients to adopt healthy habits was enhanced when they talked about their own health habits.

"These issues are on the [doctors'] radars," says Frank. "They've read the literature, are sufficiently convinced that it's true and important that they practice it themselves, and therefore are sufficiently convinced that it's true and important enough to recommend it to their patients."

Other studies have found that while a doctor's influence is important, what matters most is how he or she conveys the information to patients.

In a study published last year in the journal The Lancet, a group of British researchers found that doctors who offer advice in a warm, compassionate, understanding way are more likely to be listened to than those who take a more formal, strictly informational approach, void of any reassuring words. That was true whether the doctors spoke from personal experience or not.

The new study by Emory's Frank is part of the larger Women Physician's Health Study, a research project that queried 4,500 U.S. women doctors about various aspects of their health. Questionnaires were sent to female doctors in numerous disciplines, including family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, general practice and general internal medicine. And all had graduated medical school between 1950 and 1989.

The doctors were asked questions concerning both their health-related behaviors and their counseling practices.

Those questions included a request to rate the relevance of nutritional and weight counseling in their practice, and to self-evaluate their level of confidence in discussing these subjects.

The doctors were also asked about their own personal health history as it related to weight loss and nutrition, as well as their daily dietary and nutritional habits, including consumption of fats, alcohol, and fruits and vegetables.

The study results: Overall, the doctors consumed a healthy diet, averaging 3.5 servings of vegetables a day, and they limited their consumption of fat. And of the 72 percent of doctors who reported drinking alcohol, they said they consumed just 1.3 drinks a week.

Interestingly, doctors who reported altering their own dietary standards -- either for weight loss or other health reasons -- were also more likely to talk to their patients about doing the same, the study reports.

What to Do: For more information on nutrition, visit The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center. To find out more about planning a healthy diet, see The American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Interviews with Erica Frank, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor, and vice chairwoman, department of family and preventive medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta; February 2002 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; September 2000 Archives of Family Medicine; March 2001 The Lancet
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