Doctors tend to stigmatize AIDS patients and patients with gay life styles, according to a study of randomly selected physicians in three large U.S. cities.

The doctors in the study were much less willing to interact with a patient -- even in routine conversation -- when the patient was identified as having AIDS.

Randomly selected doctors from the three cities were given a packet of information including a 500-word "vignette" describing the case of a patient called "Mark." The vignettes, which described Mark as an outgoing and athletic college graduate employed by a computer company, were identical except in two respects:

Some of the packets identified Mark's illness as AIDS, and others as leukemia; and some of the packets identified his romantic partner as "Roberta," and others as "Robert."

The doctors were asked a series of questions designed to assess, on a seven-point scale, their attitudes toward the patient.

In six areas, the patient with AIDS elicited much harsher attitudes than an identically described patient said to have leukemia. Doctors considered the AIDS patient to be more responsible for his illness, more deserving of what had happened to him, experiencing more pain but less deserving of sympathy and understanding, more danoerous to others and more deserving of quarantine.

Doctors also described themselves as significantly less willing to engage in a conver- sation with the patient who had AIDS than with the same patient who had leukemia.

They were also less willing to attend a party where the AIDS patient was present or had prepared food, less willing to work in the same office, less likely to renew his lease if he were a tenant, less willing to continue a past friendship and less willing to allow children to visit him.

Though the researchers weren't surprised that the stigma exists, they said "the strength and consistency of the stigmatization was disquieting."

The three cities -- Phoenix, Ariz., Memphis, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio -- were selected because of geographical diversity and because they are the largest cities in three states near the middle range for AIDS prevalence in the United States. The study, by researchers at the University of Mississippi, was reported in the American Journal of Public Health.

"It is nai ve to assume that all physicians will have equally positive attitudes toward all patients," the authors concluded. "At the same time, these data indicate that it is equally nai ve to assume that AIDS patients are viewed nonjudgmentally by physicians."