Patients lose more weight when doctors give specific tips, study finds

When it comes to losing weight, doctors' messages to their patients can make a powerful difference, according to new research from Duke University, which was published Wednesday in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Participants in the study had only modest weight loss when doctors gave generic advice such as "you should exercise more." They fared much better when doctors instead provided specific instructions.

"Just telling somebody to lose weight or improve their diet or physical activity didn't work," said Gary Bennett, PhD, study co-author and a professor of psychology at Duke, in a statement released by the university. "The doctor should instead encourage patient participation in a specific program."

The year-long study looked at 134 participants who were overweight, predominantly female, and had a mean age of 51. In addition to weight problems, participants had additional health concerns such as hypertension and diabetes.

Study participants were invited to take part in a comprehensive weight-loss program that included tailored behavioral goals, educational material, calls from health coaches, and text messages with weight-loss tips and progress reports.

Participants also checked in regularly with healthcare providers. Some doctors or nurses simply urged patients in general terms to "lose weight" or "exercise more." Other healthcare providers, though, gave specific advice that reinforced the comprehensive weight loss program, such as encouraging patients to take calls from weight loss coaches. Patients in the latter group lost nearly seven pounds more on average, according to the study abstract.

The amount of empathy doctors displayed made a difference, too. Patients who rated their providers as empathetic and caring lost more weight on average than those who did not, researchers said.

Having a provider who the patient feels cares about them and has sympathy towards how hard it is to lose weight is key, researchers said. Further, patients who enroll in a weight-loss program should consider asking their healthcare providers to check in on their progress. This can help keep them accountable.