Healthcare workers need to embrace healthier lifestyles, study says

December 19, 2012

Despite their perceived status as role models, healthcare workers frequently fail to adopt behavior that's more healthy than the rest of the population, according to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Despite their perceived status as role models, healthcare workers frequently fail to adopt behavior that's more healthy than the rest of the population, according to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, found no significant difference between healthcare workers and the U.S. population as a whole in several categories:

  • the likelihood of a having a recent dental visit,

  • being overweight or obese,

  • drinking and driving,

  • failing to wear a seatbelt,

  • engaging in HIV-risky behavior,

  • getting sunburned, and

  • having a colonoscopy.

Most surprisingly, female healthcare workers aged more than 50 years were less likely than the rest of the population to have received a mammogram within the prior 2 years, according to the researchers.

"Healthcare workers frequently do not 'practice what they preach,' " the researchers write.

Nonetheless, on a few measures, health workers scored higher than the rest of the population. Health workers were more likely to:

  • have a personal physician,

  • have had a checkup within 2 years,

  • have exercised within 30 days, and to deny recent binge drinking.

Some-but not all-of these differences can simply be explained by access to healthcare, which is a big advantage most health workers have over the rest of the population. But access isn't the only reason for the differences, the researchers argue, because it doesn't explain why both groups were equally as likely to have received colonoscopies.

A key question the study raises is whether its findings are "reassuring," which the researchers largely leave for the reader to decide.

The researchers gathered their data from the the U.S. Center for Disease Control's 2008 and 2010 annual telephone surveys of the U.S. adult population. Of the 260,558 participants in the surveys, 21,380 said they provided direct patient care as part of their daily work. Limitations of the study include that it relied on information that was self-reported by survey participants, and that it didn't differentiate between physicians, nurses, aides and other health workers, the authors note.

Many physicians have no doubt endeavored in recent years to model healthy behavior for their patients, as was the case with Elizabeth Pector, MD, an Illinois family physician and member ofMedical Economics' advisory board. Pector wrote in an essay earlier this year that she'd lost about 20 pounds over 4 months, and kept most of it off for a year.

"I'm more focused, energetic, and relaxed," Pector wrote. "Feeling younger is the best gift I could ever give myself."

In a similar essay, Antoinette Cheney, DO, urged physicians to be role models for patients by "practicing what you preach."

"Hundreds of times a day, almost on autopilot, we hear ourselves give the speech about eating a more healthful diet and exercising more," Cheney wrote. "Have we said it enough times to actually take the advice to heart?"