The next generation of physicians’ views on childhood obesity

Researchers investigate medical student views on health disparities and childhood obesity
September 4, 2019

Childhood obesity is a serious health issue in the United States, with about 20 percent of American children affected, increasing their chances of various health conditions later in life. Research has found that childhood obesity results from multiple interacting factors such as genetics and biology, behavior, and home and community environments. Studies have also suggested the need for further enhancing medical training related to childhood obesity care. Moreover, research focusing on student perspectives on the various causes of childhood obesity and how those perspectives affect the way students would deal with this condition in their eventual medical practice is sparse.

A new study by Texas A&M researchers published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health attempts to fill this knowledge gap by investigating how medical students perceive health disparities and how this perception is related their view of childhood obesity. Shinduk Lee, DrPH, a postdoctoral research associate in theTexas A&M School of Public Health  Center for Population Health and Aging, was the lead author and was joined by Center Co-Directors Marcia Ory, PhD, and Matthew Smith, PhD, along with Texas A&M College of Medicine affiliate Laura Kromann, MD.

The researchers surveyed medical students to see how they view the roles of different people in addressing childhood obesity and the relative importance of discussing various topics related to childhood obesity with child patients and their parents. These perspectives can shed light on how medical student perspectives can affect the way they might address childhood obesity as physicians.

Each student surveyed was asked how important a role children themselves, their parents and friends, coaches, teachers and religious figures, politicians and physicians played in reducing childhood obesity. Lee and colleagues grouped these people into informal, formal, physician, informal, and government categories, with child patients, friends, and family considered informal category and coaches and teachers falling into the formal.

The researchers also asked participants to rank the importance of discussing different topics related to childhood obesity. These topics included dietary restrictions such as limiting fast food or sugar-sweetened drinks and increasing vegetable and fruit intake, cutting down on screen time and promoting physical activity, having access to safe environments for activity, and having health promotion programs in schools.

In addition, the researchers investigated how participants viewed the significance of childhood obesity as a health issue and the relative importance of parental and physician roles in preventing obesity. Lastly, Lee and colleagues asked participants to rate how they viewed statements that low-income families lack the knowledge or resources to change health behavior.

Most of the medical students surveyed considered childhood obesity a serious health issue and one they would likely be faced with as physicians. A majority also considered childhood obesity to be a family issue, but said that physicians can play an effective role in reducing childhood obesity. However, fewer than half of the students reported feeling prepared to treat childhood obesity. Additionally, many of the students placed most of the responsibility on patients and parents, which the researchers note could lead to victim blaming. In line with this observation, the medical students also ranked patients and informal roles as the most important individuals in reducing childhood obesity and patient behavior as the most important topics to discuss with child patients and their parents.

Furthermore, researchers observed that the students who were aware of health disparities in childhood obesity based on socioeconomic status reported greater importance of government roles and discussing with parents about school-based interventions. This study suggests a possible benefit of training the medical students about the interactions between behavior and environmental and social factors related to childhood obesity.

“This study provides unique insights into medical students’ perceptions of health disparities and childhood obesity,” Lee said. “Further research building on this work will likely pave the way for improved medical school curricula that prepares students to work with children and their parents, as well as policy makers, teachers and community leaders, to address this growing health concern.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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