February 23, 2004

Healthy doctors & students = healthy patients

By Ron Sauder

A series of studies have shown that doctors on the whole are healthier and longer-lived than the general population, even when matched to others of the same upper-tier socioeconomic status. Additional studies have shown that doctors who practice what they preach--watching their weight, not smoking, fastening safety belts--also are more likely to counsel their patients to follow such preventive measures.

Furthermore, the Women Physicians' Health Study found that doctors who take good care of themselves, in terms of lowering their cholesterol, applying sunscreen, getting breast exams, taking flu vaccine and other similar preventive measures, are most likely to urge their patients to follow the same healthy behaviors.

Now there is reason to believe the "healthy doctors-healthy patients" equation starts even earlier in the pipeline. Medical students who practice healthy habits will probably follow through in counseling their patients to do the same once they become doctors, according to a School of Medicine researcher.

Erica Frank, associate professor of family and preventive medicine, reported in the Feb. 4 Journal of the American Medical Association that first-year medical students who perform strenuous exercise are likely to believe that counseling their patients to exercise will be "highly relevant" to their work as physicians. Frank's finding was based on a survey of 1,906 entering medical students, with an 87 percent response rate.

"Health promotion and disease prevention programs for medical students may not only affect their personal health behaviors but may also influence their patient counseling attitudes and practices," Frank wrote.

She added, however, that this possible connection has not yet been studied or reported anywhere in the medical literature, suggesting obvious avenues for future research.

Currently Frank is heading a study of students at 17 participating medical schools called "Healthy Doc-Healthy Patient." The study has been backed by funding from the American Cancer Society, the CDC, Merck Labs and Glaxo-Wellcome. Future publications will report on the dietary, exercise and personal health habits of U.S. medical students and the effects medical school has on them. The project also will examine whether medical schools can encourage healthy behaviors on the part of medical students and, consequently, on the counseling practices they follow in treating patients.

"As a group, physicians are healthy and have healthy lifestyles," Frank said. "Furthermore, physicians' health behaviors appear to affect patients' attitudes and motivation to make lifestyle changes. Building on this relationship between personal and clinical practices could encourage physicians to include preventive counseling more often in their practices and to do it more effectively."