Hopefully patients can find medical care elsewhere.
There's no denying that obesity is a problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control says more than a third of all adult Americans are considered clinically obese. They are at higher risk for contracting such health ailments as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer than those who fall within an acceptable weight range. It would then go to reason that a fair number of obese people may need also more medical attention.
But what if a person is denied medical treatment due to the fact that he or she is obese?
A Massachusetts woman, Ida Davidson, made headlines this week with her account of being dropped as a patient, on her second visit, by a doctor because she has a policy of not seeing patients who weigh more than 200 pounds. Why? Dr. Helen Carter maintains that obese patients pose a danger to her staff and that some have suffered injuries as a result of treating them, although she hasn't said what these injuries were. And she's allowed established patients to be grandfathered in.
Discrimination? Not legally. According to American Medical Association code, doctors cannot turn away patients due to "race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other basis that would constitute invidious discrimination," but weight is not listed. The AMA's position is that both patients and doctors can "exercise freedom in choosing with whom to enter into a patient physician relationship... A physician may decline to undertake the care of a patient whose medical condition is not within the physician's current competence."
A key word here is competence. It's one thing for an ophthalmologist to refuse treating a broken leg; it's quite another for a general practitioner to shut out a whole group of people who may have a variety of healthcare needs, many of which fall under the doctor's realm of knowledge. It amounts to legal discrimination. A health professional could never get by with refusing treatment for a black person, homosexual or Muslim on that basis. Yet, an obese person can, in this case, be discriminated against.
Davidson's story brought this apparently rare occurrence to the public eye, but it makes you wonder how often this type of discrimination really does occur. Perhaps the AMA needs to revisit this portion of its code, especially "invidious discrimination," and determine if weight falls under this category.
With the sheer number of obese people in America – who, incidentally, are at that point for a number of reasons, some out of their control – it is conceivable that this group is the bread and butter for many healthcare professionals, who would be wise to keep them as patients if not simply for business reasons. And they would also serve themselves well if they treated these patients with the same level of professionalism, tender loving care and dignity given to others.
It goes both ways, after all; patients can easily go find someone else if not satisfied.