Physician Heal Thyself: Overcoming the Implicit Biases of Health Care
I’m publishing this series of articles to share and discuss my ruminations on coping with a troubled and messy world. You can “follow” me to never miss an article.
An article in the prestigious journal Science details what the Medical profession is doing to confront and thereby overcome the implicit biases of Health Care Professionals[i]. Namely, Doctors and Nurses exhibit noticeable biases when treating women and people of color. Thus, studies show that Physicians underestimate the pains experienced by women and people of color, and by doing so, thereby discounting their complaints.
The first step in overcoming bias is not only an honest recognition of its existence, but acknowledging that it causes considerable harm. The second is a comprehensive assessment of the extent and the kinds of damage it causes.
To accomplish this, researchers have used the well-known Implicit Assumption Test or IAT which determines the strength with which a person associates a trait such as race or sexual orientation with judgements of “good” or “bad”. Thus, the quicker one links a trait with “good” or “bad”, the higher one’s score on the IAT. As a result, studies show that Doctors who were tested had a clear preference for White people. Significantly, the same held true for Doctors who were themselves Nonwhite.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to measure bias than it is to eliminate it. Just having Physicians take the IAT does not necessarily provide long lasting results. At this point, the most promising alternatives are training exercises where Health Care workers act out scripted clinical scenarios that have patients reacting with anger after having been insulted.
Nonetheless, the article concludes that at this point in time, none of the proposed solutions will eliminate deep-rooted biases in Medicine. It’s not easy because White Supremacy is deeply embedded in the U.S., if not throughout the world.
Despite this, I find the institution of Science, one that I’ve always held in high esteem, admirable and thereby a hopeful sign. It’s one of the few that studies itself with the same rigor and honesty that it studies other subjects. And, unlike others, it holds its own limitations up to the light so that hopefully it can improve.
Contrast the above with the following Health related matter[ii]. Women in Texas who helped a woman get an Abortion (she didn’t want another child by her husband with whom she was divorcing) are facing the prospect of a wrongful-death Lawsuit seeking a million dollars from each of them. The Lawsuit includes a photograph of the women dressed up like characters from The Handmaids Tale as “evidence that they ‘celebrated the murder’” of the unborn child. The goal is to make people feel so isolated emotionally such that they can’t trust anyone.
[i] Rodigo Perez Ortega, “DO NO UNCONSCIOUS HARM,” Science, March 2023, Vol 379, March 3, 2023, PP 870–873.
[ii] Michelle Goldberg, “Abortion Foes Want to Make Women Afraid to Get Help From Friends,” The New York Times, Tuesday, March 14, 2023,P A18.
Ian I. Mitroff is credited as being one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management. He has a BS, MS, and a PhD in Engineering and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley. He Is Professor Emeritus from the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Currently, he is a Senior Research Affiliate in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Management. He has published 41 books. His latest is: The Socially Responsible Organization: Lessons from Covid, Springer, New York, 2022.
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash