Doctors follow own advice for healthy living

A survey of more than 9,000 physicians and nurses finds that doctors serve as better role models for good health.

By — Posted Oct. 24, 2012

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U.S. physicians are healthier and have better health habits than nurses and the general adult population, according to an Oct. 3 Gallup report.

An analysis of data from the Gallup Healthways Physical Health Index and Healthy Behaviors Index found that physicians are about half as likely as nurses and other workers to be obese. They are five times less likely than the general employed population to smoke, said Elizabeth Mendes, Gallup deputy managing editor.

“Both obesity and smoking pose significant health risks, so that physicians — who are on the front lines in helping address such issues — are setting a relatively good example is good news,” she said.

The report encompassed surveys conducted between Jan. 2, 2011, and Aug. 31, 2012, with 1,984 physicians and 7,166 nurses. To gauge physical health, respondents were measured on 18 factors, including the number of sick days they took in the past month, their energy levels, health issues and body mass index. To examine their lifestyles, they were asked about smoking, exercise and eating habits.

The better health of physicians compared with nurses and the general population remained true even after controlling for income and education level. Physicians were on par with other highly educated individuals when it came to exercise and eating healthy, the report said (link).

The findings are surprising, especially given that other research has shown high rates of stress and related problems among physicians, said Sara N. Bleich, PhD, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “There is a sizable body of literature looking at physician well-being which shows that doctors experience high stress, divorce rates, etc.,” she said.

Burnout plagues doctors

A nationwide survey of 7,288 physicians found that 45.8% reported experiencing at least one symptom of serious burnout, such as emotional exhaustion, according to an Archives of Internal Medicine study published online Aug. 20. Doctors work an average of 10 hours more per week and are nearly twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their work-life balance than the general population, the Archives study said (link).

Other studies have shown that a physician’s health influences how comfortable he or she is advising patients to make positive lifestyle changes. For example, Bleich was lead author of a study published in the May issue of Obesity that found that a physician’s body-mass index affects how well he or she is able to help patients who struggle with weight issues (link).

“In particular, normal-weight doctors are more likely to provide recommended obesity care and feel comfortable doing so as compared to overweight and obese physicians,” Bleich said. “Similar results have been shown in the smoking literature with smoking doctors being less likely to initiate cessation interventions with their patients and provide consultation services to assist with smoking cessation.”

Gallup has surveyed 1,000 American adults nightly since January 2008 as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index. The Oct. 3 report was the first time the company has singled out physicians for analysis, Mendes said.

“Physicians and nurses clearly play an important role in shaping Americans’ health and well-being,” she said. “Thus, the health of these professionals provides interesting insights into how well-positioned they are to serve as role models to their patients.”

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Physicians healthier than most other workers

Doctors are much less likely than nurses and other adult workers to be obese or have other health issues such as hypertension and high cholesterol.

Health issue Physicians Nurses Other workers
Obesity 13% 25% 25%
High cholesterol 21% 20% 20%
Hypertension 16% 22% 22%
Asthma 9% 11% 10%
Depression 7% 14% 13%
Cancer 6% 5% 4%
Diabetes 4% 7% 7%
Heart attack 2% 1% 2%

Source: “U.S. Physicians Set Good Health Example,” Gallup Inc., Oct. 3 (link)

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