Is Your Doctor Healthier Than You?

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Whether your primary care doctor keeps fit can determine the quality of your own care. Here are eight charts that explain the state of physician fitness in the United States.

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Your doctor's job is to make sure you stay healthy. But what about his own well-being? If your physician isn't in shape, it's a sign you may be receiving inferior care. In a recent Johns Hopkins University study, physicians were found to be much less likely to talk to their patients about weight if they were overweight themselves. Ninety-three percent of primary care doctors admitted diagnosing obesity only when it was clear that the patient was heavier than the physician. Overlooking the weight issue might make for a happier doctor-patient relationship -- but then, politeness never reduced anyone's risk of diabetes.

If the quality of your doctor's care fluctuates with his own fitness, it's worth asking just how healthy America's physicians are. Do they exercise more than the rest of us? Have heart disease and diabetes at greater rates? Suffer from depression and commit suicide with the same frequency that we do?

The good news first: doctors are good at avoiding risky behavior. Compared to everyone else, they almost never smoke, they rarely drink, and they lack many of the obesity-related chronic illnesses that are threatening to overwhelm the country's health-care system. Those data come from the Physicians' Health Study II (PHS-II), a 10-year clinical trial involving over 14,000 middle-aged male doctors that concluded in 2006.

The bad news, though, is that those same doctors suffer from problems that are harder to detect at a glance. They often have high blood pressure and cholesterol. Many suffer from depression -- and attempt suicide -- at greater rates than the rest of the country. It's hard to say whether the job has much to do with it, although studies also show that students in medical school also report feelings of depression in remarkable proportions.

Comparable polls of female physicians are less exhaustive, unfortunately - they're limited to a handful of minimally-informative metrics.

For male and female doctors alike, the most recent statistics available mainly date to the late 1990s. Due to the variance across studies, not all of the numbers allow for an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, even a rough matchup reveals that doctors differ vastly in many ways from the rest of us -- but in other ways, we're just the same.

OBESITY

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The clinical definition of obesity is having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Among male physicians, the obesity rate is only 11 percent. That's pretty impressive, especially when more than a third of all Americans are considered obese. Meanwhile, 41 percent of doctors have a "normal" BMI of less than 25, outpacing comparable middle-aged Americans by 18 percentage points.

But just because doctors aren't obese doesn't mean they're all slim. Another 47 percent of male physicians suffer from excessive weight, according to the baseline survey -- about three and a half percentage points higher than the average male American in middle age.


EXERCISE 

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Americans on the whole actually exercise a bit more than doctors do. In 2009, a Gallup-Healthways poll found that just over 68 percent of Americans exercised at least once per week. Only 60 percent of male physicians could say the same. Thirty-one percent of Americans admitted to not exercising at all, compared to 38 percent of doctors participating in PHS-II.


DIET

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The only representative data we have in terms of diet is a measure of sufficient intake of fruit and vegetables. Despite advances in some states, Americans nationally still aren't meeting targets. Just 26 percent of us manage three to five servings of vegetables per day, and 14 percent of us get three to five servings of fruit. That means as many as 86 percent of Americans are missing out on some of their necessary fruits or vegetables daily. Data on female physicians don't seem to paint a prettier picture: about 15 percent of doctors surveyed said they got five or more fruits or vegetables in their diet per day.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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