NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Health care workers may not always "practice what they preach" when it comes to keeping up to date with cancer screenings, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking, a new study suggests.
Researchers found people surveyed by phone who said their job involved direct patient care were just as likely to be overweight, avoid the dentist, get sunburned and not wear their seatbelt as those in other fields.
Health care workers, however, were more likely to have had a recent check-up and to report exercising in the past month - findings that were "reassuring," researchers said. They were also less apt to drink heavily, according to results published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"All of us look to our health care workers to serve as role models, and to the degree that we succeed in being role models, I think that improves our comfort with counseling patients," said Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who worked on the study.
"We certainly found a number of areas where at best, physicians (and other health workers) don't really do any better than anyone else," he told Reuters Health.
Dr. Erica Frank from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said there's lots of data showing doctors are healthier than the general population, on average. But that may not apply to other health care workers, who typically have less medical knowledge and make less money, she added.
The new findings come from phone surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008 and 2010.
Out of 260,558 people surveyed, 21,380 said they worked in health care. However, Mukamal and his co-author Benjamin Helfand didn't know whether they were doctors, nurses, aides or otherwise employed.
The most "surprising" finding on the survey, the pair said, was that women over age 50 in the health sector were 13 percent more likely to say they hadn't been screened for breast cancer in the past two years, compared to non-health care workers. In total, 21 percent of women in the study hadn't had a recent mammogram.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a government-backed panel, recommends women aged 50 to 74 get a mammogram every other year.
Close to two-thirds of both health care workers and other survey participants were overweight, and 18 percent across the board smoked.
Mukamal said previous studies have also suggested health care workers aren't any better than everyone else at keeping off extra weight.
"We're all susceptible to the same societal pressures," he said.
"It emphasizes, for example, why the obesity epidemic is so hard to fix," Mukamal said. "Even people who know better don't do better."
The findings are important in part, researchers said, because there's evidence that health workers' own habits affect the advice they give to patients.
"Now we have abundant data… showing this very strong and consistent link between what a doctor does themselves and the kind of care a patient gets," Frank, who has studied doctors' health but wasn't involved in the new report, told Reuters Health.
For example, obese doctors have a harder time counseling patients about obesity, according to Mukamal.
"Those are areas where the health care community as a whole can step back and say, ‘How do we improve this?'" he said - both for the sake of employees themselves and the patients they counsel.
SOURCE: bit.ly/T7yNJh Archives of Internal Medicine, online December 17, 2012.