Original Article

Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 363-372

First online:

Impact of Genetic Causal Information on Medical Students’ Clinical Encounters with an Obese Virtual Patient: Health Promotion and Social Stigma

  • Susan PerskyAffiliated withSocial and Behavioral Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute Email author 
  • , Collette P. EcclestonAffiliated withSyracuse University

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Health care providers will increasingly encounter information about the genetics of obesity as genetics research progresses.


This study explores whether information about the genetics of obesity reduces medical student stigmatization of obese patients, and how it affects rates of health behavior-related referral.


One hundred and ten third and fourth year medical students were randomly assigned to read about genetic or behavioral mechanisms of obesity, or a control topic. Students interacted with an obese virtual patient in a virtual clinic and completed a battery of measures.


Rates of most health behavior screening recommendations (weight loss, exercise, and diet consultations) were lower among participants exposed to genetic causal information than control. The genetic causal information group exhibited less negative stereotyping of the patient than control, F(1,105) = 5.00, p = 0.028, but did not differ in anticipated patient adherence, F(1,105) = 3.18, p = 0.077.


Information highlighting genetic contributions to obesity may lead to both positive and negative outcomes. Communication about the genetics of obesity should discuss the multi-factorial and non-deterministic nature of genetic risk.


Obesity Genetics Stigma Provider attitudes Health behavior Virtual reality