A different kind of vigilance
Date: March 1, 2012
Bias is an inevitable but unfortunate part of life. We all have biases, whether toward social statuses, ethnicities, religion, culture or sexual preference.
But while the average human being might be able to excuse personal biases as an unavoidable aspect of life, medical providers don’t have that luxury. Still, try as we might, unconscious bias often lurks, unsuspected, beneath our professional exteriors. When that bias translates into our actions and decisions, however, our patients—and our own professionalism—may suffer the consequences.
Research done here at Hopkins has shown that minorities and those living in poverty are consistently more vulnerable to worse health outcomes, and that racial bias—conscious or not—is often a factor in clinical decisions that reflect, or even create, racial disparities in health care.
We owe every patient the best possible care, without regard to race, social standing or religious beliefs. Part of providing that level of care includes recognizing the areas where we’re lacking and rectifying them, including our own biases and the disparities they create. Doing so requires a different kind of vigilance than checking a patient’s medical records or reviewing a list of medications. We have to be willing to question ourselves and the decisions we make.
To that end, we’re doing all we can to educate our medical students, faculty and staff about how to recognize unconscious bias in themselves and others, so that they can confront and eliminate it. We recently held a department retreat with Molly Carnes focused on unconscious bias. Carnes is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin with special expertise in the area. Understanding the role that racial and social bias may play in the relationship between doctors and their patients is an important step toward fixing disparities in the health care system.
No matter how sensitive the topic, we must have honest discussions and confront these issues so that we can understand not only why they exist, but do all we can to eliminate them.
Director of Surgery