Study Examines Racial Bias In Doctors

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

A study presented Tuesday at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in San Diego looked at whether doctors subconsciously prefer white patients over black patients, which could explain some racial health disparities, Reuters reports. Previous research has shown that blacks receive poorer health care than whites, even when income, education level and insurance status are the same. Blacks also have disproportionate rates of some conditions, and reasons for the disparities have not fully been explained, according to Reuters.

The study, by researchers from the University of Washington, is based on results of more than 400,000 people who between 2004 and 2006 took an online test about their attitudes on race (Reuters, 10/28). The test, called the Implicit Association Test, was developed more than a decade ago by a UW professor to measure subconscious bias (Ho, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/28). The study looks for subconscious signs of bias by asking the test-taker to complete a series of questions and tasks, such as having to quickly state whether photos of blacks and whites were positive or negative. Anthony Greenwald of the UW who created the test and helped with the study said, "We don't call what these test show prejudice. We talk about it as hidden bias or unconscious bias, something that most people are unaware they even possess."


Of the participants, about 2,500 identified themselves as doctors. Researchers found that most doctors in all racial and ethnic groups showed an "implicit preference over whites than blacks," with the exception of black doctors who showed no preference for either race, Reuters reports (Reuters, 10/28). The preference for whites was more significant in male doctors than female doctors, and the bias was similar among the rest of the test-takers, who had a more than 70% unconscious preference for whites over blacks (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/28).

Janice Sabin, the UW researcher who presented the study, said, "This supports speculation that subtle race bias may affect health care, but does not imply that it will," adding that it is too early to determine whether there is a direct link between physician bias and the quality of care black patients receive. She added, "But we have to remember people are not racist if they hold an implicit bias," noting, "People who report they have a medical education are not different from other people, and this kind of unconscious bias is a common phenomenon" (Reuters, 10/28).

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