7 habits of highly healthy physicians

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published February 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

Physicians with healthy habits and behaviors not only reap the benefits of good health themselves, but also have a greater impact on patients when counseling about healthy habits. In effect, your good health can boost the health of your patients. 

How is it done? Long story short: Practice what you preach. 

For further details, take a look at these seven habits of highly healthy physicians: 

They don’t smoke

When it comes to practicing what you preach, doctors follow their own advice about smoking: Fewer than 2% of physicians are current smokers compared with about 16% of the general population, according to an analysis of the Tobacco Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey. 

The authors of this analysis also found that nearly 78% of healthcare professionals had never smoked, as compared with 65% of the general population.

They keep up to date on their health screenings

Female physicians between age 50 and 70 years had mammograms more frequently in the past 2 years (79.8%) than women in the general population of the same age range (67.3%), according to the authors of the Women Physicians’ Health Study

“We found that women physicians generally reported healthy habits, exceeded national health behavior goals in all examinable cases, consistently had better health-related behaviors than women in the general population, and in many cases outperformed other women of high socioeconomic status,” they wrote. 

Not surprisingly, female physicians who underwent regular mammogram screenings were more likely to order mammograms for their patients, researchers found

Among male physicians aged 50 and older, a higher percentage—86%—reported having had prostate cancer screening within the past 2 years.

They exercise

Many doctors think they’re not getting enough exercise. And many of them are right—they aren’t getting enough exercise. But, doctors are doing better than average Americans. Specifically, 78% of physicians and medical students met Department of Health and Human Services physical activity guidelines, compared with 64.5% of US adults, according to the authors of one study

It’s important for doctors to get a healthy amount of exercise—and not just for themselves. In study after study, researchers have shown that physically active doctors are more likely to provide physical activity advice to patients, and patients are more likely to listen to them because healthy doctors serve as good role models. 

They limit alcohol

In direct contrast to their physical activity, doctors seem to take the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to drinking alcohol. That is, doctors tend to use and abuse alcohol a bit more than average US adults. In one national survey study, 15.3% of 7,209 physicians had alcohol consumption scores that were consistent with alcohol abuse or dependence. Compare this with alcohol abuse or dependence in 12.6% of the general US population.

“Substance abuse is a treatable condition with an excellent prognosis when identified early with appropriate intervention, treatment, and monitoring,” the survey authors wrote. They noted that the 5-year relapse rate for physicians after treatment is low—just one-fifth (19%) that of the general population.

While doctors, overall, may drink slightly more than their general population peers, healthy doctors know when to say “when.” 

They get enough sleep

Most doctors just don’t get enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. But, only about half of doctors (51%) reported getting the minimum of 7 hours of shut-eye nightly, according to one global survey

Adequate sleep is not only necessary for doctors’ physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, but also for that of their patients. Doctors who lack sleep put their patients at risk for substandard care and even medical errors. 

“Health care workers need to begin to think of coming to work impaired by chronic sleep deprivation as similar to coming to work impaired by alcohol,” wrote anesthesiologist Steven K. Howard, MD, in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. “A 2-hour sleep loss is equivalent to a 0.045% breath-alcohol concentration, and a 4-hour sleep loss is equivalent to a 0.095% breath-alcohol concentration—above Texas’ legal limit of 0.08%.

They get regular eye exams

The eyes are a window to the soul...and to the body’s health. Many illnesses and physical conditions—such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and others—can be first identified through an eye exam

Doctors are clearly aware of this—as many as 82% of physicians aged 40 years and older reported having an eye examination within the last 2 years, according to the authors of one survey. By comparison, only about 45% to 55% of Americans aged 40 years and over reported having an eye exam in the past year. 

They eat healthily

Eating is another area where many doctors don’t always practice what they preach. 

No one would argue that the typical American diet is “healthy,” yet 44% of doctors who are overweight or obese reported that the high-fat, high-sugar American diet is the one they eat (compared with only 28% of normal- to underweight physicians), according to Medscape’s 2014 Physician Lifestyle Report

Unexpectedly, most doctors eat about the same amount of fruits and vegetables as everyday Americans. For instance, both 60% of doctors and 60% of average Americans reported eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables on 4 or more days per week. 

Eating healthy isn’t easy for busy physicians. Healthcare centers and conferences don’t make it any easier because the food served at most meetings is rarely healthy, argued Lenard I. Lesser, MD, MSHS, Health Policy, Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA, and colleagues in a JAMA article

“Just as patients are advised to increase their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, it is time to incorporate this advice into meals served in healthcare settings, so health care professionals can practice what they preach,” Dr. Lesser and coauthors wrote. 

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