Examining Provider Bias In Health Care Through Implicit Bias Rounds

The following comes from the July 17, 2017, article by Vidya Viswanathan, Matthew Seigerman, Edward Manning, and Jaya Aysola on the Health Affairs Blog.


In 2015, a 27-year-old patient presented to our primary care resident practice in intractable pain, having been recently discharged from the hospital following surgery for a complex shoulder fracture. The orthopedic surgeons evaluated him the day before and scheduled a second surgery but did not adequately treat his pain. The inpatient nurse had told him he would be discharged with the oral pain regimen he had been taking for the past day or so within the hospital. But upon discharge, he found himself without those prescriptions and came to our primary care practice in severe pain. When we reviewed his inpatient record to determine the reason for this discrepancy, the attending physician discovered the phrase “drug-seeking” in the record. The rationale for this statement was not provided, nor the context. When questioned by his new primary care provider about this, the patient was shocked. He tried to recollect what he may have said to result in that assumption. He had no prior history of documented substance or prescription drug abuse.

The patient in question was a young black male and the victim of a drive-by shooting by a stranger. He had been sitting in the passenger seat of a stationary car when it happened. Standard practice in this type of case involves long-acting oral opioid medication, with gradual adjustments of a medication regimen tailored to meet the needs of the patient. But the patient didn’t receive the standard of care, and we naturally wondered why. The answer may be implicit bias.

The literature suggests that he would be more likely to be perceived as drug-seeking when requesting pain relief, compared to his white counterpart. Bias is particularly well-documented in pain management, with black children and adults receiving less adequate pain treatment than their white counterparts in the emergency department for the same presenting condition, even when accounting for insurance status and severity of pain. Longitudinal, national data on 156,729 pain-related emergency department visits found that even among those presenting with the same condition, non-Hispanic white patients were significantly more likely to receive an opioid than all other ethnic minorities examined. Researchers using an instrument to assess implicit bias in more than 2,500 physicians found a significant implicit preference for white Americans relative to black Americans among physicians of all racial/ethnic groups except for black physicians. Another study found that physicians were twice as likely to underestimate pain in black patients compared with all other ethnicities combined and also more likely to overestimate pain in nonblack patients than in black patients.

To address the case of our patient who was inadequately treated for pain based on apparently false assumptions—and other patients who have experienced a different standard of care due to implicit bias—we believe there needs to be formal discussion of this source of clinical errors at institutions. We propose the initiation of a new kind of case conference—“Implicit Bias Rounds”—to specifically identify and discuss these cases.

How Does Bias Occur?

We conceptualized Implicit Bias Rounds based on theories on why disparities in care occur despite well-intentioned providers and despite the recognition of the importance of cognitive error as a source of diagnostic error. Providers, when faced with the need to make complicated judgments quickly and with insufficient and imperfect information, may rely on assumptions associated with a patient’s social categories to fill in the gaps with information that may be relevant to diagnosis and treatment. Physicians are at risk for relying on stereotypes or assumptions for efficient decision making, even when attempting to be objective. In addition to the assumptions providers may make about patients that are dissimilar to them, they may also unconsciously favor patients whose identity they relate to. Such affinity bias may cause a provider not to consider the possibility of a drug problem in an adolescent that appears similar to him, despite a positive urine screen for marijuana. Current efforts in medicine to combat bias may also serve to perpetuate them: Physician-anthropologist Arthur Kleinman states that one problem with traditional cultural competency training is that it may erroneously characterize culture as static and cultural understanding as a technical skill.

It is not enough to merely consider potential sources of provider bias without considering proposed strategies to mitigate that bias. Evidence tells us that simply adjusting the explicit medical curricula is not enough to change implicit bias; increasing positive role modeling for medical trainees is more effective. Strategies proposed to combat implicit bias include consciously thinking of the patient’s perspective and approaching each provider-patient interaction as a shared negotiation between worldviews. Focusing on specific and unique details about an individual, instead of his or her social category, serves to combat biases by diminishing stereotyping and promoting empathy building. Clinicians who are trained to consider the unique perspectives and experiences of their patients are more likely to show empathy toward them, the study suggests. Priming physicians with information about the relevance or irrelevance of sociocultural factors in medical care can combat cognitive errors that stem from stereotyping. A regular intervention such as Implicit Bias Rounds would serve to implement these strategies on a consistent basis.

Read the full article.

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