It used to be that when Brooke Boyarsky Pratt saw a physician for the first time, she wore a T-shirt from her alma mater, Harvard Business School, to try to fend off misconceptions about her weight.
“I just had such patronizing, stigmatizing experiences with physicians, just not taking me seriously or assuming I’m not very smart, because of my lifelong struggle with obesity,” she said.
It was these demoralizing experiences that spurred Boyarsky Pratt to start knownwell, a Boston-based health care company dedicated to combatting weight bias in the doctor’s office.
Earlier this month, knownwell launched with $4.5 million in seed money led by local venture capital firm Flare Capital Partners, with additional funds from investors such as Larry Summers and Lydia Gilbert of Dia & Co.
The funds will go toward developing the first knownwell primary care clinic, currently under construction in Needham, which will offer both in person and virtual services. Boyarsky Pratt anticipates having about six physicians at the clinic — who will either already be certified in obesity medicine or trained by knownwell in obesity care delivery — along with nurse practitioners. There will also be providers with other specialties, like nutrition and behavioral health.
They hope to begin seeing patients by late March, and the clinic will accept insurance, she said.
Boyarsky Pratt teamed up with Dr. Angela Fitch, president of the Obesity Medicine Association, to launch knownwell. Fitch, who serves as the company’s chief medical officer, says the goal is to become a one-stop-shop for patients.
Fitch said she believes the primary care model is well suited to offer knownwell patients a “clinician who cares about their overall wellbeing, more so than any kind of specific numbers or specific goal.” But she added that the clinic also should be able to compassionately address weight-related issues, like sleep apnea or diabetes.
“Obesity and weight management issues, whether you’re trying to maintain your weight or lose weight ... are long-term issues,” said Fitch, who until recently was the associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. “It’s very challenging to treat them episodically like we do today.”
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 41.9 percent of US adults age 20 and over are obese. In Massachusetts, about 27.4 percent of adults self reported being obese.
Weight bias in health care is well-established, with a number of studies indicating that overweight and obese patients experience disrespectful treatment from providers, or are told that all of their health problems can be attributed to their weight. This can, in turn, result in poor health outcomes, since some of these patients may avoid or delay getting care in the future.
The “weight-inclusive clinic” in Needham will be “designed with our patient population in mind,” said Boyarsky Pratt. This means having exam tables that can weigh patients who prefer not to use scales. (Patients will be weighed only when explicitly necessary, Boyarsky Pratt said.) There will also be “furniture that fits everyone,” a private weighing area for those who are comfortable stepping on a scale, and blood pressure cuffs that accommodate all body types, she said.
Beyond making sure the space itself is inclusive, both Boyarsky Pratt and Fitch said the most crucial element of knownwell will be its environment of acceptance.
“Our biggest culture would be a culture of community,” said Fitch. “Of trying to support each other, whether that’s the care team community, or the patient community, and having that sense of belonging and that people are working together ... to be the healthiest version of ourselves.”