Headlines: September 29th, 2006



Better off patients are seen as more attractive by family doctors than those that come from deprived backgrounds and, new research today says, that could be one reason why they get better treatment from their GPs. The study is published in the Royal Society of Medicine’s “Journal of Health Services Research & Policy”.

One of the authors of the study, Dr Dermot O’Reilly, said equity was supposed to be one of the central tenets of the National Health Service but evidence suggested this was not the case. He said GPs found patients from disadvantaged backgrounds to be less attractive. “Our question is whether these perceptions affect the treatment disadvantaged patients receive. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it does,” he added.

The researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast took photographs of 300 patients from affluent and disadvantaged backgrounds from 15 GP surgeries in Northern Ireland. Three pictures of each patient’s face were then examined by 30 GPs from other practices who were told nothing about any of the patients. The researchers found that based just on these images doctors rated younger patients more attractive than older patients and patients from higher socio-economic backgrounds as more attractive than the less affluent ones.

“Significantly, these differences were more pronounced when the GP came from a practice serving a predominately deprived population,” Dr. O’Reilly said, adding that existing research already showed deprived patients at a disadvantage in health care. Patients from lower socioeconomic groups tended to have shorter consultations and to be given less information and were less likely to get a prescription or be referred for specialist care.

The research team said literature showed people were conditioned to judge others on their appearance and the study had shown this also happened in the patient-doctor relationship. They urged GPs and other health workers to be aware of this potential for bias and try to offset it so deprived patients were not inadvertently disadvantaged still further.

The research, “Might how you look influence how well you are looked after? A study which demonstrates that GPs perceive socio-economic gradients in attractiveness’ by D. O’Reilly, K. Steele, C. Patterson, P. Milson and P. Harte is published in the October issue of the Journal.