Can Clinician Bias Be Good and Bad?

Bias appears in many forms. In a clinical setting, bias can be both beneficial and detrimental. When a clinician has preconceived ideas about the likelihood of an existing ailment or illness due to socioeconomic background or racial or cultural conditions, it can elevate awareness. Clinicians who work with a particular segment of the community might be more alert to recognizing their heightened risk for specific diseases. However, when a medical professional is biased in an unconscious way, it could set the stage for misdiagnosis and inaccurate treatment recommendations. In any field, when a person is classified and judged according to their race in a way that results in bias, it is considered discrimination. Unfortunately, this behavior exists across all environments. But often, individuals exhibit racial bias unconsciously. Although this does not justify discriminatory behavior, it is an issue that has raised concern in the mental health field and one that needs to be explored further.

Gordon B. Moskowitz of the Psychology Department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, recently conducted an experiment to determine if clinicians made unconscious racially biased decisions. Using subliminal priming involving pictures of African American and White American faces, a sample of medical doctors were asked to classify specific diseases, both physical and psychological, by racial risk factor. The study revealed that when the doctors were presented with the names of illnesses, they more often associated socially negative illnesses, such as substance abuse, HIV, and obesity, with African Americans. Although research has shown that some diseases are more common among African Americans, there is little evidence to suggest that race increases the risk for all of the illnesses. These findings suggest that even though the doctors were unaware of their prejudice, they did make racially biased assumptions as a result of the subliminal priming.

Racial disparity exists in many areas of our culture. Professional, judicial, and academic arenas have been the focus of racial integrity for decades. This new study clearly shows that despite the conscious willingness of medical professionals to exhibit full racial equality, bias does still exist. In some instances, this may be to the client’s advantage, increasing the screening for illnesses that they are predisposed to. However, in other cases, the bias could result in discrimination and negative treatment outcomes. Moskowitz said that the goal of this study was to identify these problems in order to develop methods to educate members of the medical field about bias and how to eradicate it. He added, “Such training will allow medical professionals to attain their goal: to help and serve all people through the unbiased provision of health care.”

Moskowitz, G. B., Stone, J., Childs, A. (2012). Implicit stereotyping and medical decisions: Unconscious stereotype activation in practitioners’ thoughts about African Americans. American Journal of Public Health, 102.5, 996-1001.

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  • Johnny C

    Johnny C

    May 9th, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    I know that most of us try not to let our personal biases influence the daily decis’ions that we make, but I think that we all know we are lying if we say that they never come into play. I mean, you see the stories on the news or think about the ways that you were raised and the ways that others in your family may have talked about other groups of people. We have all tried hard to advance beyond that kind of thinking ourselves but it does come back into the picture from time to time. I would hope that one day we could all advance part this because to me there is never a such thing as good bias. This is the kind of thing that will continue to hold people back, and I don’t think that this is what any of us truly believe that society should reflect.

  • mia


    May 9th, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    Kind of shocked that so many negative things are most often attributed to the African American demographic. Wow, and I thought that we should be way past that kind of judgement and bias by now, but I guess I was wrong if even the most educated people are the ones still making these kinds of snap judgements.

  • Weston


    May 10th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    The only way that I could see bias as being good would be if they were just more in tune with how one culture processes different elements of mental health over that of another.

    Other than that, the word bias in and of itself does not usually convey anything positive and I would be very hesitant to use it in a way trying to explain that it can contribute in a positive way to anyone’s treatment plan.

  • joe g

    joe g

    May 10th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    If it gets the patient good care, then yeah, I can go with that. But most of the rest of the time, I see nothing good about it at all. There is too much stereotyping already, and to have even more people feeding into that is wrong. It does not do anyone any good except for maybe with screenings.

  • Kelli


    May 11th, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    Um, easy answer is no.
    Bias is never a good thing. It brings along with it ideas that are often antiquated, unfounde and untrue. There is nothing to be gained from that from anyone.
    It only encourages the continuity of the bias among those in positions of power and it keeps down the minority groups who could very much be suffering as a result of the lack of good and thorough care.

  • WL


    May 12th, 2012 at 12:16 AM

    While bias is never good in generic terms,it may be good at times.The best way to think about this is-a little bit of experience(lets not call it bias purely) with verification made by the clinician is the best approach to follow(never good to just go with bias).

  • Jayme


    May 12th, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    Don’t think that there could be an argument made that bias is good.

    But what I think that may be referred to as bias in this particular article when describing that a practition may identify certain medical problems with certain ethnic groups, and would then work to have their patient screened for that just because it is more prevalent in that group, I guess I don’t really see that as bias.

    I see that as being thorough with the care that you are offering to your patient. If that means that you could be screening them for something that they don’t necessarily exhibit but which has a tendency to show up in others of their same background, why wouldn’t you want to first rule those htings out?

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