We Physicians Preach What We Practice, and That Matters

Erica Frank, MD, MPH


December 17, 2007

Physician well-being, patients' preventive care, and global warming: What do these 3 issues have in common? Both physician well-being and patients' preventive care are important contributors to climate change. Here's how it goes:

First, physician well-being: Contrary to myth, US physicians tend to live several years longer than nonphysicians,[1] largely because we typically do have very good health habits; for example, very few of us smoke -- about 4% of doctors in the States.[2,3]

But there are 2 other important areas where our habits are better than others' but could still use considerable improvement. These are diet and exercise.

Second, patients' preventive care: Physicians tend to preach to patients what we ourselves practice. Many studies have now shown that (starting with freshman medical students) physicians with healthy personal habits are more likely to encourage our patients to adopt such habits.[3,4]

This is specifically true for both diet and exercise: Physicians who eat less fat are half again as likely to test patients' cholesterol,[3,5] and those who exercise more are significantly more likely to counsel their patients about exercise. And it's also been shown that patients find doctors with healthier diet and exercise habits to be more believable and more successfully motivating in both diet and exercise.[6]

So the last, the healthy climate preservation part, then is, if you eat lower on the food chain by eating less meat and more locally grown fruits and vegetables, and if you walk or bike more instead of driving, we will help our patients consume fewer resources and pollute less, too.

So, while behavioral change is complex, it's clear that our personal actions as physicians, and the way that our actions help our patients make better choices, are a good place to start healing ourselves, our patients, and our planet.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Erica Frank, Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, and Founder and Principal Investigator of the Healthy Doc = Healthy Patient initiative.


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