Healthcare News & Insights

Doctors reveal their biases in new survey

Whether they’re positive or negative, most people have biases in some areas. You don’t want to think your hospital’s physicians allow any biases to adversely affect patient care, but according to new research, they may have a bigger impact than doctors think. 

79085824A new survey from Medscape evaluated the effects of bias and burnout on over 15,800 physicians in a variety of specialties, from critical care to family medicine.

Not surprisingly, the most burned-out doctors work in the emergency department (ED). But they’re also the group that’s most likely to have biases toward certain types of patients.

While 40% of all doctors who responded to the survey admitted they had biases toward certain patients, 62% of ED physicians said they held specific biases.

The top patient characteristics that triggered bias in physicians included:

  • emotional problems
  • weight
  • intelligence
  • language differences, and
  • insurance coverage.

The areas that immediately spring to mind when thinking of biased behavior actually ranked the lowest on physicians’ lists: age, income level, race, level of attractiveness and gender.

Impact on treatment

Although most physicians indicated that bias didn’t affect the way they administered treatment to patients, a handful admitted that they did, including 14% of the ED physicians surveyed.

And while some physicians (29%) thought their biases affected treatment in a negative way, 25% thought they had a positive effect on treatment. A similar number (24%) acknowledged that bias had both positive and negative impacts on treatment.

Many physicians reported that since they were aware of their biases, they went out of their way to treat patients better as a way of overcompensating, particularly regarding biases due to emotional problems, weight and intelligence. Per the study, doctors aged 45 or younger were more likely to engage in this behavior than older providers.

Effect of unintentional bias

One aspect of bias the survey couldn’t measure is implicit bias. This describes the actions people take without being consciously aware of them. A person may claim not to be biased toward a certain person, but can do something inadvertently that creates a disparity impacting patient care.

A recent study shows how such bias can affect care delivery for hospitalized patients. According to an article in U.S. News and World Report, doctors were asked to give news to critically ill patients, who were actually portrayed by both black and white actors. While most doctors said the same words to each “patient,” their body language differed depending on the patient’s race.

In fact, when evaluating their nonverbal interactions, their scores on that portion of the encounter were 7% lower when interacting with black patients than they were with white ones. Doctors were less likely to touch and stand close to black patients while talking about their plan of care. These differences may be attributed to implicit biases the doctors had.

Experiences like these leave minorities distrustful of their providers and the care they’re receiving. It makes them less engaged in the recovery process and less receptive to following suggestions from clinical staff.

That’s why it’s critical for your physicians to take a close look at the way they communicate with patients, both verbally and nonverbally. It could be key to improving outcomes for patients of all backgrounds.

You should also encourage your providers to confront and address any biases they have, such as those toward people with mental disorders or with less education.

This is especially important since stressful situations (like working in the ED) can magnify these biases and affect the quality of care patients receive. Study respondents who felt burned out were more likely to say they were biased toward certain patients.

How hospitals can help

In many cases, counteracting bias is as simple as reminding providers to take a patient-centered approach to care and to leave their personal feelings toward certain types of people at the door.

Providing doctors with a more supportive environment that gives them access to resources for managing stress and burnout can also go a long way toward keeping biases from negatively affecting treatment.

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