Having medical students wear a ‘fat suit’ can help destigmatise obesity, German researchers say.

Using an obesity simulation suit, popularly known as a ‘fat suit’, appeared to be a useful teaching aid that also uncovered medical student prejudice against obesity, according to a proof of concept study published in the online journal BMJ Open.

Destigmatising obesity is important for the future healthcare of obese or overweight patients, who may have a range of health issues linked to their weight, and whose numbers have been rising steadily, say the researchers.

Stigma around obesity not only makes it harder for people who are obese to seek help for health issues, but also means health professionals may blame them for putting on too much weight and treat them less respectfully than other patients.

The researchers wanted to find out if an ‘obesity simulation suit’ worn by a patient might provide a realistic way of teaching tomorrow’s doctors about obesity and help to uncover their associated prejudices.

They set up a role play in groups of 10 of a routine encounter between a ‘family doctor’ and a ‘patient with diabetes’ wearing an obesity simulation suit designed to simulate the appearance of grade 2 obesity (30-39 kg/m2).

The students were also asked about the degree to which they felt they could engage in empathic conversation with the patient.

The responses showed that all participants felt the suit was realistic, with nearly two thirds of students (65 per cent) and more than four out of 10 teachers (43.5 per cent) saying that it made the role play more convincing, with some students reporting that it prompted obesity stereotyping.

Teachers rated the suit’s value as a teaching aid quite highly, with around three out of four (74 per cent) respondents saying they felt it facilitated empathy in the role play. The students also tended to agree that it helped them empathise with the patient.

“We strongly believe that integrating an obesity simulation suit into the routine undergraduate medical teaching context is a valuable tool. It can raise medical students’ awareness for communication encounters with patients with obesity,” the researchers said.

The study is accessible here.