A new study shows that health care workers don't always lead by example when it comes to adopting healthy habits.

A survey conducted in the U.S. finds that people working in the health care field have just as much trouble as the rest of us taking care of their health and getting the checkups they need.

The findings come from a survey called the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System. It’s an annual telephone survey conducted for the U.S. centers for Disease Control that surveys the American population about their lifestyle habits.

To uncover the findings, Dr. Kenneth Mukamal and Benjamin Helfand, of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, teased out the data from survey respondents who identified themselves as health care workers. The 21,000 respondents included anyone who reported they worked with patients, from doctors and nurses to physiotherapists and dental assistants.

The researchers looked at six “preventative health care behaviours,” such as going to see a doctor regularly, as well as 14 lifestyle factors. They then compared the answers of the health workers to respondents from the general population.

They found that health care workers were more likely than other participants to have a personal physician, to have had a check-up in the past two years, and to have exercised in the past 30 days.

“That sort of makes sense,” says CTVs medical expert Dr. Marla Shapiro, who was not involved in the study. “If you’re in the health care setting, you have more access to finding a primary care doctor, for example.”

On the other hand, healthcare workers were no more or less likely to have had a Pap test in the past three years, a dental visit in the past year, or to have ever had a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy – all moves that have been shown to help spot or prevent health care problems.

As well, female healthcare workers 50 and older were significantly more likely than other women in that age group to report not having had a mammogram in the previous two years.

And when it came to sticking to healthy life choices, health care workers were often no better than other Americans.

Health workers were just as likely -- and sometimes more likely -- to engage in risky behaviour that could put them at risk for HIV, to not always wear a seatbelt, or to have had a sunburn in the last year. As well, their rates of reported obesity and smoking were about the same as the rest of the population.

Dr. Shapiro says the findings reinforce the idea that even in an educated population and even among workers who can see the effects daily of poor lifestyle choices, leading healthy lives isn’t always easy.

“It’s hard for them too,” she said. “It still tells us that smoking is hard to beat, and that obesity is on the rise and this population is affected too.”

The authors note that their results should be taken with some caution since it was based on a survey and all the data were self-reported.

The results appear online in Archives of Internal Medicine.