Legal / Ethical | Nursing Practices

Nursing Strategies for Overcoming Weight Bias in Healthcare

  • Weight bias in healthcare is a newer type of bias that relates to medical staff holding prejudices against patients solely about their weight. 
  • Studies have shown that those who experience weight bias are more likely to cancel appointments, adhere to advice and treatment plans, trust their provider-all leading to negative patient outcomes. 
  • Nurses arguably spend the most time with patients, making them very influential in the medical setting. Nurses can use tactics like own accountability, specific language, and patient empowerment to help overcome weight bias in healthcare. 

Katy Luggar-Schmit


June 16, 2022
Simmons University

If you are an individual who has a weight within normal range, you may not experience anxiety about a medical visit.  

If you are an individual who does struggle with weight you are more likely to experience stress and anxiety during your next medical visit; or you may cancel it all together. Why is that? Weight Bias.  

Weight Bias is unfortunately a common occurrence throughout healthcare today.  

As a nurse I have witnessed this from providers, nurse colleagues, and other medical staff. Weight bias is holding negative beliefs about a patient based solely on their weight. Weight bias makes it less likely for patients who are overweight to seek medical care for general medical concerns and even for issues not related to weight.  

Patients who have experienced weight bias are more likely to cancel appointments and report a lower quality of care. Patients who experience weight bias by healthcare professionals may also develop unhealthy eating patterns due to the internalization of the comments from healthcare professionals about the patients’ weight.  

Because of this, the patient will gain more weight increasing their health risks and furthering the issue of obesity. Patients who have experienced weight bias have a challenging time finding a primary care provider they feel comfortable with and as a result, they do not receive the care for other health issues they may be experiencing.  


Weight Bias in Healthcare advice

How You Can Help Overcome Weight Bias in Healthcare

The nurse-patient dynamic is unqiue because nurses spend a lot of one-on-one time with patients compared to doctors. A nurse has the potential to really set the tone for that speific patient encounter.

By utilizing the following strategies in one’s nursing practice, together the nursing community can help reduce stigmas related to overweight patients, and promote more positive patient outcomes.

Self Accountability

As a nurse you can help patients have a positive healthcare experience by addressing the patient not the obesity, refraining from weighing the patient around others, communicating with sensitivity, recognizing the issues with weight gain are complex and not just attributed to willpower, and keeping your own ideas and prejudices in check.  

Ask yourself these questions: Do I give patients information in a positive non-judgmental manner? Am I comfortable working with patients of all sizes and shapes? Do I make patient character assumptions based on their weight?  

Holding yourself accountable and being mindful of your own behavior towards patients is a positive step in ensuring the patients you come across have a positive experience during their visit.  

Empower Patients

What should you tell a patient if they tell you they feel they have been discriminated against by their provider or other medical professional because of their weight?  

Encourage the patient to speak about their experience and how it made them feel. Patients with obesity often feel judged and shamed about their body size. It is important for patients to feel comfortable to ask questions and express concerns not only about weight management but other health issues as well. 

Intentional Language

Initiating conversations about weight with a patient can be intimidating but if you are mindful of the phrases you use and how you approach the patient you will receive a positive response.  

For example, I have found it helpful to ask, “Would it be ok if we discussed your weight today?” instead of “We need to talk about your weight” or “You have gained weight since your last visit.”  

You can even ask the patient if there are any terms, they prefer you use when discussing their weight. This will make them feel more involved in their healthcare choices and they will feel respected. A few other questions you can ask are “How would you like your health to be different?” or “How can I help you succeed with your health goals?” 

Weight Bias in Healthcare strategies

Impact of Addressing Weight Bias in Healthcare

As a medical professional, I believe if we can encourage and motivate patients to make healthier choices by changing the language in which we speak to them they will feel more empowered to take charge of their own health because they will feel heard and supported instead of shamed or embarrassed.

Healthcare professionals should strive to support patients wherever they are at in their health journey and understand that achieving overall health is an ongoing process that involves more than just weight management.  



Weight Bias in Healthcare tips

The Bottom Line

I think the main component of achieving anything in life is having a good support system in place and a patient’s healthcare team should be the backbone of their support system in achieving their health goals.

As nurses and providers, we should be the patients biggest most enthusiastic cheerleaders. If we can adopt this new attitude regarding weight, I believe we will witness more positive health outcomes in the lives of the patients.

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