Published on November 7, 2023, 1:04 am

Some doctors have shown to achieve more successful patient weight loss outcomes than others, and a significant factor in this discrepancy could be their communication style. A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford revealed that subtle changes in tone of voice and word choice by physicians can lead to significantly different weight loss results among their patients.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 40 percent of people in the U.S. are classified as obese. In 2019, obesity-related health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer cost the U.S. nearly $173 billion in medical expenses. However, the impact of doctors on their patients’ ability to lose weight has not been extensively researched until now.

The lead author of the study, Charlotte Albury from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, stated that “Until now, the long-term impact of communication variations in this context remained unexplored. Our findings give us a new understanding that could significantly alter how medical professionals approach conversations with patients.”

In their research published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, Albury and her team analyzed 246 recorded doctor-patient conversations where physicians offered referrals to a 12-week weight loss program. By studying the tone, word choice, and framing used by doctors during these conversations, researchers classified them into three main communication styles: good news, bad news, and neutral.

The study found that when doctors framed the conversation as “good news,” highlighting the benefits and opportunities of weight loss in a positive manner, patients were more likely to enroll in a weight loss program. These patients also attended more sessions and achieved greater weight loss compared to those who received neutral or negative framing.

Approximately 83 percent of patients who received the “good news” approach attended the weight loss program, while only 50 percent from the neutral or bad news group participated. Furthermore, patients who received the “good news” approach lost around half a stone (7 pounds) more than those who received neutral or negative news.

It is important to note that the communication styles were not randomly selected, which means that patients who were more receptive to advice and more willing to enroll in the program may have also elicited a positive response from their physicians. Further studies will be necessary to confirm these results. However, this research emphasizes the harm of using negative language when discussing weight loss and obesity.

“We know words matter, and this research shows they really do, in the short and long term,” said Albury. “Overall, our research shows that subtle changes in communication can significantly influence patient outcomes one year later. The elements that constituted ‘good news’ were subtle but had a clear and positive impact.”

In conclusion, effective communication between doctors and patients plays a vital role in weight loss success. Physicians should consider adopting a positive framing style when discussing weight loss with their patients to encourage enrollment in programs and improve overall outcomes.