How to Identify, Understand, and Unlearn Implicit Bias in Patient Care
Taking steps to recognize and correct unconscious assumptions toward groups can promote health equity.
Fam Pract Manag. 2019 Jul-Aug;26(4):29-33.
Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.
Jamie is a 38-year-old woman and the attending physician on a busy inpatient teaching service. On rounds, she notices several patients tending to look at the male medical student when asking a question and seeming to disregard her. Alex is a 55-year-old black man who has a history of diabetic polyneuropathy with significant neuropathic pain. His last A1C was 7.8. He reports worsening lower extremity pain and is frustrated that, despite his bringing this up repeatedly to different clinicians, no one has addressed it. Alex has been on gabapentin 100 mg before bed for 18 months without change, and his physicians haven't increased or changed his medication to help with pain relief.
Alisha is a 27-year-old Asian family medicine resident who overhears labor and delivery nurses and the attending complain that Indian women are resistant to cervical exams.
These scenarios reflect the unconscious assumptions that pervade our everyday lives, not only as practicing clinicians but also as private citizens. Some of Jamie's patients assume the male member of the team is the attending physician. Alex's physicians perceive him to be a “drug-seeking” patient and miss opportunities to improve his care. Alisha is exposed to stereotypes about a particular ethnic group.
Although assumptions like these may not be directly ill-intentioned, they can have serious consequences. In medical practice, these unconscious beliefs and stereotypes influence medical decision-making. In the classic Institute of Medicine report “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,” the authors concluded that “bias, stereotyping, and clinical uncertainty on the part of health care providers may contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in health care” often despite providers' best intentions.1 For example, studies show that discrimination and bias at both the individual and institutional levels contribute to shocking disparities for African-American patients in terms of receiving certain procedures less often or experiencing much higher infant mortality rates when compared with non-Hispanic whites.2,3 As racial and ethnic diversity increases across our nation, it is imperative that we as physicians intentionally confront and find ways to mitigate our biases.
Implicit bias is the unconscious collection of stereotypes and attitudes that we develop toward certain groups of people, which can affect our patient relationships and care decisions.
You can overcome implicit bias by first discovering your blind spots and then actively working to dismiss stereotypes and attitudes that affect your interactions.
While individual action is helpful, organizations and institutions must also work to eliminate systemic problems.
Referencesshow all references
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3. Infant mortality and African Americans. U.S Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health website. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=23. Updated Nov. 9, 2017. Accessed June 10, 2019.
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9. Burgess DJ, Beach MC, Saha S. Mindfulness practice: A promising approach to reducing the effects of clinician implicit bias on patients. Patient Educ Couns. 2017;100(2):372–376.
10. Lueke A, Gibson B. Mindfulness meditation reduces implicit age and race bias: the role of reduced automaticity of responding. Soc Psychol Personal Sci. 2015;6(3):284–291.
11. Devine PG, Forscher PS, Austin AJ, Cox WTL. Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: a prejudice habit-breaking intervention. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2012;48(6):1267–1278.
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