Why Talking About Implicit Bias In Medicine Is So Important

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Implicit bias is when a person makes a judgement about another person based on unconscious stereotypes.

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Faradia Kernizan headshot

Faradia Kernizan is a first-generation Haitian-American from Queens, NY. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2012, and majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology.  In her free time, Faradia likes to run, volunteer, bake, watch movies, and hang out with friends.

Lately in the field of medicine, discussing socio-medical topics like implicit bias has become more common. Implicit bias is when a person makes a judgement about another person based on unconscious stereotypes. When physicians use implicit biases to make decisions in medicine, it may lead to misunderstanding, misdiagnosis, or worse. Implicit bias is subconscious, so it can be hard to detect, but it is important to have these conversations in order to improve patient care and satisfaction.

I once heard a story about a teenaged girl living in an urban location who had severe abdominal pains. Because she was a black teenager in an urban city, the doctors at the hospital assumed that she was either pregnant or had an STD. As a result, she had a number of gynecological exams over the course of  three months. Meanwhile, her condition continued to worsen. After her mother asked to have her daughter seen by a gastroenterologist she was correctly diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Because of numerous doctors’ implicit biases about black female teenagers in urban cities, this patient spent three months suffering, when she may have been diagnosed and relieved of her pain much earlier. The stereotypes these doctors held impeded her treatment.

I have had a couple of family members who passed away from medical illnesses that were unfortunately misdiagnosed in early stages. Sometimes I wonder if implicit biases played a role. This is another reason why diversity in the medical field is so crucial. 

It’s important to recognize that patients have their own implicit biases as well. In many communities, patients approach physicians with a suspicion and mistrust. This mindset comes from repeated incidents in history where patients were mistreated by their physicians for research. However, this mistrust may lead to patients being noncompliant and getting even more ill, which in turn results in the increase of health disparities in the United States.

It is important that physicians come from different races and backgrounds so that implicit biases can be reduced. It is also imperative that physicians and other healthcare providers openly talk about implicit bias and discuss how it may affect them and their patients. With honest and open discussion, physicians can understand and identify certain biases they may have, and methods and strategies can be created to ensure that implicit bias doesn’t impact patient diagnosis or care. 

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