There was a very controversial presentation made at a recent meeting of heart doctors in Canada. I’ve been stewing about what to say about it for a week.
The title speaks to its inflammation:
Fat, unfit, unmotivated: Cardiologist, heal thyself
The presenter that made the stir, pediatric cardiologist, and IronPerson, Dr Brian McCrindle (Toronto) argued that overweight, unfit doctors are doing their patients a disservice. His bottom line: cardiologists are acting like the rest of Western society. They are not living a healthy lifestyle.
He made three major points. (in-depth coverage can be viewed here, on TheHeart.org)
- Studies show that doctors who eat well and exercise regularly more often recommend the same for their patients.
- Doctors have—like most people—readjusted what they consider “normal’ weight. In one particularly striking survey, 40% of doctors were overweight, yet more than half classified themselves as normal weight. (Ed note: “uh-oh.”)
- Finally, Dr McCrindle called out hospitals for their mixed messaging. He cited one study in which almost 90% of US hospitals had fast-food outlets on site. His presentation included pictures of familiar sites in hospitals: rows of vending machines and racks of candy bars at the cashier. To his presentation, I could add this recent impulse photo from a patient’s room on the heart unit…
So what does a bike-racing cardiologist who lives in one of our nation’s unhealthiest states say about all this?
It’s a tough call folks. I’ll offer three thoughts:
The state of the messenger argument:
I believe most doctors under-emphasize the healing powers of lifestyle changes, particularly daily exercise. The sedentary overweight patient with high blood pressure gets a pill rather than counsel to exercise. Every doctor knows exercise keeps that patient off medicine, lowers their risk of death and improves a list of quality life outcomes: better memory, better mood and better sex, just to name three of many.
What’s so hard about counseling patients about exercise? A lot. Not the least of which is the problem of how advocating for exercise often leads into life-coaching. I’m an AF ablationist, not a guru. Patients should expect me to tell them that exercise could treat their problem, but they should not expect me to explain how to schedule exercise into their day.
Most understand that the lifestyle choices of a doctor isn’t the reason why pills get used when exercise would suffice. Patients get pills because it’s faster, easier and there’s a perceived risk of not prescribing pills. You can e-prescribe a pill, but not exercise and restraint at the dinner table.
And…it’s pure fantasy to believe that patients take me seriously when I tell them that I too, struggle with nutrition. They see me as skinny, but when I line up in a start grid of an elite bike race, I am chunky.
On the hospital junk food paradox:
I respectfully disagree with Dr McCrindle. Rows of vending machines in hospitals simply mirror our society. No one forces people to eat this stuff. No…let me rephrase that: no one forces people to gorge themselves on this stuff.
Our crisis of sedentary-ism and obesity is not the fault of fast-food restaurants and soft drink makers. The problem isn’t the slice of pizza; it’s eating the whole pizza. (Disclosure: My bike team is sponsored by a pizza company.)
Self-righteousness and karma:
The thing that conflicts me most about this intentionally provocative paper stems from the bad karma of criticizing others for the life they choose. And bike racers believe in karma. So do most ablationists. The ridge between success and failure, health and disease, happy and depressed is a narrow one indeed.
Think glass houses. I dare not pick up that stone and throw it, for if I did, my house would surely be drafty.
Having opinions, advocating for what is right, taking a stand and most of all, being human are all admirable traits for doctors. Self-righteousness, on the other hand; that, my friends, is the slipperiest of slopes.
I’ll pass on riding that descent.