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Med Educ Online. 2020 Dec;25(1):1742966. doi: 10.1080/10872981.2020.1742966.

The "difficult" cadaver: weight bias in the gross anatomy lab.

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Department of Neurology, UCSF, San Francisco, CA, USA.
Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA.


Background: The prevalence of overweight and obesity continues to rise and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. Weight bias is common among physicians and medical students and limits the therapeutic alliance between providers and patients with overweight and obesity.Objective: The authors sought to explore the relationship between the gross anatomy course and medical student attitudes towards weight and obesity.Design: The authors employed a mixed-methods approach consisting of semi-structured interviews and anonymous web-based surveys of first-year medical students taking gross anatomy at one USA medical school. They analyzed transcripts of interviews and free-text survey responses using a grounded theory approach and performed tests of association to investigate the relationship between demographic information, responses to multiple-choice survey questions and weight bias.Results: A total of 319 (52%) first-year medical students (2015-2018) completed the survey and 33 participated in interviews. Of survey respondents, 71 (22%) responded that the course had changed how they felt about people with overweight/obesity. These respondents were also more likely to affirm that the course had affected their views toward their own bodies (p < 0.001). Qualitative data analysis identified three overarching themes within students' descriptions of the effects of the gross anatomy lab on attitudes toward bodies perceived to have excess weight: these bodies were described as 1) difficult, 2) unhealthy, and 3) evoking disgust. Students extrapolated from their experiences with cadavers to imagined interactions with future patients, relying heavily on the narrative of the difficult patient.Conclusions: At one USA medical school, students perceived their experiences in gross anatomy as shaping their attitudes toward individuals with overweight or obesity. Efforts to reduce medical student weight bias ought to target this previously unexplored potential site of weight bias.


Undergraduate medical education; bias; gross anatomy; obesity; weight-bias

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