Racial minorities and lower-income people typically fare far worse when it comes to health outcomes. And figuring out why has long been one of health care’s black boxes. Forthcoming research may help shed light on what’s driving those inequities — and how the system can fix them.
What is needed? Better bedside manner, so patients actually trust their doctors. Communication that is easily understood by everyday people. And transparency about what medical care costs, plus a willingness to discuss how price points fit into consumers’ health decisions.
Those ideas were highlighted in a white paper presented recently at a health communication conference sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings, which will be published in full later this fall, are based on interviews with 100 health professionals and 65 “disadvantaged patients,” along with a nationally representative survey of 4,000 consumers. The examination is part of a larger project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health-focused nonprofit. It was conducted by the Altarum Institute, a research and consulting organization.
The paper suggests that “implicit bias” — doctors and nurses subtly or subconsciously treating some patients differently than others — or patients’ perception of it could have consequences for people’s health. Patients who felt that they had experienced bias based on factors like race, income or insurance were less likely to follow advice about medication, for instance, and ended up sicker in the long run.
“We for a long time have neglected the human element,” said Chris Duke, director of Altarum’s Center for Consumer Choice in Health Care, and the white paper’s author. “The number one predictor of patient satisfaction is if your nurse listened to you. We neglect this at our great peril.”
Duke stressed that the research isn’t enough to draw conclusions about causality — that feeling disrespected causes worse health. But the study builds on years of investigation that suggests implicit bias and how patients perceive it could contribute to differences in health outcomes.
Insurance status was the largest predictor of how patients viewed their doctor-patient interaction, Duke said. People on Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people, or who were uninsured, were more likely to perceive disrespect than those with private insurance or Medicare, which provides coverage for senior citizens and some disabled people. Income was the next predictor for how well people felt they were treated. After that came race.
Meanwhile, racial minorities and low-income people also were more likely to be sensitive to concerns about a doctor’s bedside manner, and to seek out someone they thought would treat them well, Duke noted.
Often, these patients cue in on subtle behaviors, such as the doctor not making eye contact or not asking questions about their symptoms and health conditions, their lifestyle or their preferences on how to manage a disease. But that can be enough, Duke said, to keep people from seeking care, or following through on medical advice.
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