Unconscious Bias Has Consequences in Healthcare and Society

On Friday June 22nd I attended a panel at NABJ 2012:  "Unconscious Bias:  Consequences for Society and Health"

The gist of the panel was that there are racial/ethnic differences in the quality and intensity of healthcare. Studies done by Dr. David R. Williams of Harvard University and others corroborate this. One study had 720 physicians viewing recorded interviews with data about a hypothetical patient. The physicians then made recommendations about that patient's care. The end result, black women were significantly less likely to be referred for cardiac catheterization than white men.

These disparities are persistent and mirror life. The ordinary person is loath to admit that they stereotype, are racist, or even engage in unconscious biases.

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has two doors, one labeled "Prejudiced" the other "Unprejudiced." If you try to enter the latter it is locked and a sign is projected that says: "THINK ... NOW USE THE OTHER DOOR". Unconscious bias occurs even when folks are not prejudiced and as inferred, folks are not aware of it, and there is no intent.

The panel discussed the negative impact of unconscious bias in healthcare and all aspects of society especially our criminal and educational systems. Unconscious bias can lead to discrimination in employment and housing. According to one study it is easier for a white male felon to get a job than a black man with no record. The bias is also often internalized within individuals in a group.

According to the panel the first step in eliminating unconscious bias is to recognize that we all have it. Tests such as this one can help to identify both unconscious bias and stereotyping.

The second step is to look at people like they are individuals and avoiding lumping them into categories. You can still recognize race, gender and more, just don't characterize an individual on that basis.

Here's to hoping for healing against unconscious bias and it's negative impact on all aspects of our society.