Should doctors practice what they preach?
July 26th, 2011
07:10 AM ET

Should doctors practice what they preach?

Anthony Youn, M.D., is a plastic surgeon in Metro Detroit. He is the author of “In Stitches,” a humorous memoir about growing up Asian American and becoming a doctor.

What do you call a chain-smoking, morbidly obese, soda addict who just graduated medical school?

Yep. Doctor.

How would you feel if he were your doctor? Would you listen to him if he asked you to adopt a healthier lifestyle?

My third year of medical school during my family medicine rotation, I was assigned to follow Dr. Ben, one of the residents in the outpatient clinic. Dr. Ben didn’t look like any other doctor I’d met. He was 5 feet 6, weighed well over 300 pounds, chain-smoked during his lunch break and hauled around a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew, which he polished off by the end of his shift.

Dr. Ben was also well-read, intelligent, dedicated and caring.

My first day with Dr. Ben, a steady flow of patients arrived in the clinic with conditions ranging from ear infections to sprained ankles. They all listened to his advice carefully and agreed to undergo any necessary tests and take the proper medications to treat their ailments.

Then in walked Joe, 55, an overweight desk jockey with hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Joe smoked, drank and the only exercise he got was lifting himself off the couch to waddle over to the fridge for another beer. He came to the clinic for a follow-up visit to check on his high blood pressure. Dr. Ben and I entered the exam room, introduced ourselves and looked over Joe’s chart. After a brief physical, Dr. Ben shook his head.

“Joe, I have to be honest with you. Your blood pressure is way too high. You need to eat healthier, lose weight and stop smoking. You’re putting yourself at risk for a heart attack, lung cancer, or stroke, and I’m just getting started. Do you exercise?”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Me? No.”

“If you don’t change your lifestyle, there’s nothing I can do. All the medication in the world won’t help you.”

“Are you serious?” Joe paused. “Look at you. No offense. When’s the last time you skipped a meal?”

I felt my checks redden. I’d never heard a patient talk to a doctor this way.

Dr. Ben blushed. “I’m not the patient,” he said.


As Dr. Ben scribbled a prescription refill for a hypertension medication, Joe tapped his foot impatiently. Once Dr. Ben ripped the prescription from his pad, Joe grabbed it, flung open the door, took a last look at him, and rolled his eyes. As he lumbered down the hall I heard him mutter, “When’s the last time you saw your feet?”

Out of earshot, Dr. Ben barreled into the kitchen, popped open his sixth Mountain Dew of the day, chugged it and belched.

Fifteen years later, I offer full disclosure: I am not Dr. Perfect. Far from it. I try. I have a healthy BMI, I don’t smoke, and I exercise regularly. I also enjoy a Bud Light or two, drink a Pepsi every day at lunch, and - I admit it - my name is Tony and I’m a fast food addict. To me, the height of decadence would be to fly to Los Angeles for lunch just to gorge myself on In-N-Out cheeseburgers “animal style.”

As physicians, we are advocates for our patients’ health and well-being. But what if we’re not advocates for ourselves? Does that make us lesser physicians? Will our patients follow our recommendations? Are we supposed to be role models?

I think we should be. Dr. Ben was an outstanding doctor, but the way he looked interfered with his ability to practice medicine. If we don’t work at attaining a healthy lifestyle, why should we expect our patients to? Do as we say, not as we do? That doesn’t work for parents or doctors.

And I’m kidding. I’d never fly to In-N-Out for lunch.

But I’d love them to deliver.

Editor's note: The doctors’ and patients’ names and other identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy.

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