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Why Healthcare Professionals Need to Examine Their Own Biases

Physicians apparently underestimate black patients’ pain more than white patients’ pain. And black patients are more than three times as likely than white patients to have limbs amputated due to diabetes than white patients. These are just some examples of racial bias in the healthcare sector, according to study results in “Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others’ Pain,” published by PLOS One.

Bias can go beyond race. In the healthcare setting, it can include age, sex, religion, weight, income, culture, habits and more. So, as a healthcare administration student (and soon-to-be healthcare professional), how can you avoid perpetuating bias and educate others to do the same?

Bias: Explicit Versus Unconscious

There are two kinds of bias that you should be aware of: explicit bias and unconscious bias. Explicit bias is easier to identify and reject than unconscious bias, as it reflects what you’re thinking about and may verbalize. An example is when you label a person’s religious beliefs in a certain way because they don’t believe what you do.

Unconscious bias is an attitude you may not realize you have; you may even deny you feel that way if you are confronted with it. An example of this is questioning if an overweight woman should have tried harder to lose weight to avoid a diabetes diagnosis. According to Healthy Matters’ “Reflections on Bias in Health Care,” it’s likely a number of physicians hold these unconscious biases.

Overcoming Bias

The first step to avoiding or overcoming bias is to understand what prompts it. Physicians’ own history and family may cause bias, according to “BIAS in Medicine,” an article in the Society of Hospital Medicine’s online magazine, The Hospitalist. The physician is often the variable, not the patient. If the physician has a sibling who’s a smoker or abuses substances, this may become a bias (along with preconceived notions) he or she brings into the exam room and projects onto patients.

Being mindful of your aversions and any biases you hold may help you provide acceptable (and unbiased) patient care. You should take time to reflect on what may affect your thoughts and feelings, and consciously discard them. While this may be a good idea to do before ever treating patients, pausing for 10 to 15 seconds prior to walking into a different hospital room will allow you to clear your head and start fresh with each patient.

According to CNN’s “Training Doctors to Spot Their Own Racial Biases,” first-year medical students at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) are required to take a workshop that addresses healthcare bias. An implicit association test (IAT) is part of the coursework to help students identify their own biases. A variety of these are available for you to take for free from Project Implicit.

Simply understanding that bias is apparent in the healthcare profession and making it a priority to eradicate your own biases and educate others on their potential biases in the treatment of patients may make a difference in patient care.

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