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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