We often presume doctors and nurses are healthier than most people.

But medical professionals don’t always follow their own good advice for reducing major health risks.

A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings revealed that rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease were slightly lower in healthcare professionals, but that those diseases were still common.

In fact, the rates of those diseases in medical professionals have climbed recently at a similar degree as those for the general population.

While healthcare professionals were less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise than people in other fields, they were also more likely to report moderate to heavy alcohol consumption.

The researchers concluded that even with additional knowledge it can be difficult for a person to avoid unhealthy lifestyle choices. They said the study also casts some doubt on the effectiveness of some public health campaigns.

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What the Study Found

Dr. Anupam Jena, Ph.D., was the lead author of the study. He is a health policy researcher at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

His co-author, Dr. Elias Dayoub, M.P.P., is a resident physician at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Medicine in Philadelphia.

They reported that obesity was lower among healthcare professionals, but the rate increased from 2002 to 2013, from 20.5 percent to 22.1 percent. In other occupations, the rate increased from 28.4 to 31.7 percent.

The prevalence of diabetes was modestly lower among healthcare professionals, but went up at a similar rate — from 7.4 percent in 2005 to 8.6 percent in 2013. In other occupations the jump was from 8.7 to 9.9 percent. 

A more encouraging pattern was noted in heart health.

“Coronary artery disease prevalence declined over time among healthcare professionals, but increased for others,” Jena wrote.

Alcohol consumption, however, was another story.

Dayoub told Healthline that 23 percent of healthcare professionals reported moderate to heavy drinking. That compared with 20 percent of people in other occupations.

“We grouped moderate and heavy alcohol consumption together to capture high-risk drinking behavior, given alcohol consumption may be considerably underreported in self-reported survey data,” said Dayoub. 

Jena and Dayoub analyzed multiyear data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).

The NHIS is a cross-sectional, household-interview survey that collects information on tens of thousands of people each year. Dayoub said the researchers used five years of data between 2002 and 2013 to attain a 150,000-person sample.

The survey — which asked respondents about their occupation, health behaviors, and chronic health problems — included physicians, dentists, chiropractors, pharmacists, nutritionists, physician assistants, therapists, and nurse practitioners.

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More Knowledge Doesn’t Mean Better Choices

The researchers said the small gap in overall health exists despite a wide margin in health-related knowledge between medical professionals and other occupations.

“Higher educational attainment and health literacy may be why health professionals have overall lower chronic disease prevalence and lower rates of unhealthy behaviors,” Dayoub said.

“However, our study shows that despite the knowledge gap that may exist between health professionals and all other occupations, changes in disease burden over the past 10 years among health professionals have mirrored those in other occupations.”

“In other words,” he added, “both the growth in chronic disease, such as diabetes and hypertension, and changes in health behaviors are occurring at similar rates among health professionals and other occupation groups, despite health professionals arguably being more knowledgeable about the link between unhealthy behaviors and chronic disease.” 

The study was limited to professionals, unlike earlier ones that included healthcare workers with less formal education, Dayoub said.

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Healthy Lifestyle Difficult to Maintain

Dayoub and Jena concluded that because the growth in disease burden for health professionals often mirrored the general population, their study results suggest there may be limits to how effective public education efforts can be to reverse growth in unhealthy behaviors or chronic diseases.

“The take-home message for patients is that healthy lifestyle choices and good health are important but aren’t easy to come by,” Jena told Reuters Health. “Both take work and even healthcare professionals find it difficult.”

The study’s shortcomings, Dayoub said, include its reliance on self-reported survey data, which cannot be externally confirmed, and the fact that doctors and nurses are more likely to be aware of their conditions because they have better access to diagnosis and care.  

“Health behaviors such as alcohol consumption may be underreported or concealed by survey respondents,” Dayoub said. “Also, we calculated chronic disease prevalence based on survey respondents self-reporting their disease. Healthcare professionals may be more likely to be diagnosed or recall their disease when asked.”  

The overall findings suggest that medical experts are just as vulnerable as the general public when it comes to the factors that lead to chronic diseases, Jena said.

“Nobody is fully immune to the factors that promote unhealthy lifestyle behaviors,” he said.