As a doctor, your patients’ health is your top priority. You educate your patients on the fact that chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are the leading causes of death and disease in this country. You teach patients that prevention and a healthy lifestyle are key to reducing risk.

But do you also know that your patients aren’t just paying attention to what you say, but what you do – or don’t do? Research shows that doctors who practice healthy habits play a key role in helping their patients adopt healthy lifestyles. Here’s eye-opening evidence that doctors’ health has an impact on their patients’ health.

Leading by example?

First, the good news: as you might expect, doctors are healthier than the general public. They smoke less, drink less alcohol, and have lower rates of obesity-related chronic illnesses, according to data from the landmark Physicians’ Health Study II, a 10-year clinical trial involving more than 14,000 doctors that concluded in 2006.

On the other hand, doctors do frequently suffer from high blood pressure and cholesterol, and they have higher rates of burnout, depression, and suicide than the rest of the population. It’s estimated that we lose hundreds of doctors – an entire medical school’s worth – to suicide each year. The demands of the profession and lack of emphasis on self-care are to blame, say experts like Pamela Wible, M.D. This doesn’t set a good example for their colleagues or their patients, say doctors.

“Lots of healthcare professionals … become too stressed and inactive and busy to keep up our end of the bargain. Eventually we would not be good role models for our patients,” said Shiv Gaglani, who launched the grassroots campaign The Patient Promise with another student while in medical school at Johns Hopkins.

“If we can’t make changes in our own lives, how can we expect patients to do the same? So much of health care spending and disease burden in society is due to things that could largely be prevented by stopping smoking, losing weight, exercising 30 minutes a day, and reducing stress,” he told The Atlantic.

Evidence that modeling healthy habits works

The core tenet of The Patient Promise is for health care professionals to make a commitment to “lead by example” by practicing the healthy lifestyle behaviors they ask of their patients — physical activity, balanced nutrition, stress management – to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

There’s evidence to show that this approach works. Take smoking, for example. About half of doctors smoked in the 1950s, but today, only about three percent of doctors smoke compared to about 20 percent of American adults, reports The Atlantic. “In the culture of health care, being a smoker became unacceptable. Clinicians who stopped smoking were able to practice what they preached,” said Gaglani. “In a way, obesity and inactivity are the new smoking for clinicians.”

Doctors’ struggles with weight parallels the rest of Americans’, reports TIME. A Johns Hopkins study found that 53 percent of the physicians surveyed were overweight or obese, compared to 64 percent of U.S. adults.

More shocking than that, however, is evidence that a doctor’s weight may be strongly associated with how he or she educates patients about obesity, according to a recent article in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine: “Normal-weight doctors are significantly more likely to counsel their obese patients about weight loss. Overweight and obese physicians report significantly less confidence than their normal-weight colleagues in giving their patients diet or exercise counseling.” Normal-weight physicians are more confident that their advice makes an impact and that they can be models for weight-related behaviors.

This research only confirms what most of us already know: the advice to “do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t work. We all need to lead by example, starting with healthy doctors who follow the same advice they give to their patients. “Instead of talking about all the doom and gloom, start showcasing those doctors who have figured it out,” was Dr. Wible’s advice to the American Medical Association. “Doctor means teacher. Medicine is an apprenticeship profession. We learn by modeling other people.”

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