Healthy doctors make healthy patients, Canadian study finds

Researchers in British Columbia say they've found that women are far more likely than men to receive sub-standard care and treatment after they test HIV positive. Adam Berry/Getty Images

TORONTO — Are patients more likely to get their flu shot, check their blood pressure or screen for cancer if their doctors do? A new University of British Columbia study says yes, that’s the case in Canada and other parts of the world.

The study suggests that doctors and health care workers play a vital role in influencing the Canadian public. Even if patients don’t know that their doctors take the time for these preventive health practices, they’re more likely to follow these guidelines if their doctors do, the report published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal says.

“Doctors practice what they preach — it’s human nature. That is because if you do it yourself, you clearly believe the recommendations and, of course, you’re going to be more likely to endorse it for your patients and you think it is worth spending your time on,” lead author Dr. Erica Frank, of UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, told Global News.

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She’s calling for policy makers to consider this relationship between doctors’ health habits and their patients’ health and remind doctors that what they do could rub off on the people they’re looking after.

“You can address physicians’ needs and the needs of patients simultaneously. Target the physicians, and improve the health of the whole population,” she said.

Doctors’ habits reflect in their patients, findings show

Frank collaborated with Israeli researchers to consider the relationship between doctors’ health habits and in turn, their patients. She’s been studying this relationship for the past two decades.

In this study, they scoured the electronic medical records for screening and vaccination practices of 1,488 doctors and their almost 1.9 million adult patients. Mammograms, blood pressure measurements, colorectal screenings and annual flu shots among other practices were included in the data.

Results showed across the board that doctors who had these health services provided to them were more likely to have patients who did, too.

Read the full study here.

If doctors made sure they got their flu shot, for example, 49 per cent of their patients did too. If they didn’t make time for it, only 43 per cent of patients bothered to get their flu shot.

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“If your doctor didn’t do it, you weren’t as likely to get it and that is not a good reason for people not to get health care,” she said.

While these may be Israeli doctors and patients, Frank says the results align with findings in Canada, the United States, Columbia and Laos.

Frank says that doctors and health care workers play an integral role in inspiring the public to consider screening, topping up their booster shots and looking after their health.

“This is a tight and important correlation and we need to do something about this,” Frank said.

“We need to use this relationship to improve physicians’ health and thus improve their patients’ health,” she explained.

Doctors leading patients by example

Doctors and health care professionals are generally healthier than their counterparts in other fields, but there could be improvements.

Some doctors aren’t making appointments for these preventive measures for their own health because of time constraints. They’re busy people like the rest of the population, Frank reminds readers.

That means health care services should be delivered in a more convenient way, she suggests. Mobile vans containing medical equipment could make their rounds, helping to provide testing to doctors, nurses and patients alike in clinics. That already exists in the United States and other parts of the world. Doctors show their patients they’re getting screened, and leading by example, they encourage those at the clinic to do the same.

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Read more: Patients place less trust in obese doctors: study

Physician health has traditionally been centered on stress and burnout, but the emphasis should shift to how to get doctors healthy and encouraging them to look after their long-term health.

It could be through training in medical school or campaigns that address doctors, and not just the public. Frank says both these avenues would remind doctors that their health habits ultimately influence their patients.

The Canadian Medical Association and other associations around the world are already acting on helping their physicians acknowledge this correlation, Frank says.

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