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When Your Doctor Is Fitter Than You Are

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Jul 13 2017

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Faculty, In the News

“I enjoy working out at the gym,” declares one profile. “To keep myself fit, I like to hike, bike and exercise,” says another.

These comments aren’t part of a dating site. Rather, they come from physicians’ online profiles that prospective patients view when they are looking for a new doctor.

There are good reasons doctors might strive to lead by example. “I practice what I preach by living healthy every day,” declares one physician on Kaiser Permanente’s online doctor search portal. Patients may trust or be inspired by such a doctor, the thinking goes. And if health care professionals fail to follow their own advice, they may be accused of hypocrisy.

But for some patients, particularly those battling weight issues, a doctor’s declarations of personal fitness may not have the intended effect of attracting new patients. Instead, rather than inspiring them, it can drive them away.

Recently, my colleague Benoît Monin and I studied doctors who advertise their fitness online. Past research has shown that people worry that those who claim the moral high ground will look down on others whose behavior seems unfavorable by comparison. For example, meat-eaters worry that vegetarians will judge them because of their diet. We wondered: Could emphasizing fitness make doctors seem “healthier than thou” and turn off patients?