Implicit bias in healthcare professionals ?

Authors: Chloë FitzGerald and Samia Hurst of Institute for Ethics, History, and the Humanities, Faculty of Medicine University of Geneva, Genève, Switzerland review a prevailing prejudice against others which affects healthcare professionals just as much as anyone else. March 2017.


Implicit biases involve associations outside conscious awareness that lead to a negative evaluation of a person on the basis of irrelevant characteristics such as race or gender. This review examines the evidence that healthcare professionals display implicit biases towards patients.


PubMed, PsychINFO, PsychARTICLE and CINAHL were searched for peer-reviewed articles published between 1st March 2003 and 31st March 2013. Two reviewers assessed the eligibility of the identified papers based on precise content and quality criteria. The references of eligible papers were examined to identify further eligible studies.


Forty two articles were identified as eligible. Seventeen used an implicit measure (Implicit Association Test in fifteen and subliminal priming in two), to test the biases of healthcare professionals. Twenty five articles employed a between-subjects design, using vignettes to examine the influence of patient characteristics on healthcare professionals’ attitudes, diagnoses, and treatment decisions. The second method was included although it does not isolate implicit attitudes because it is recognised by psychologists who specialise in implicit cognition as a way of detecting the possible presence of implicit bias. Twenty seven studies examined racial/ethnic biases; ten other biases were investigated, including gender, age and weight. Thirty five articles found evidence of implicit bias in healthcare professionals; all the studies that investigated correlations found a significant positive relationship between level of implicit bias and lower quality of care.


The evidence indicates that healthcare professionals exhibit the same levels of implicit bias as the wider population. The interactions between multiple patient characteristics and between healthcare professional and patient characteristics reveal the complexity of the phenomenon of implicit bias and its influence on clinician-patient interaction. The most convincing studies from our review are those that combine the IAT and a method measuring the quality of treatment in the actual world. Correlational evidence indicates that biases are likely to influence diagnosis and treatment decisions and levels of care in some circumstances and need to be further investigated. Our review also indicates that there may sometimes be a gap between the norm of impartiality and the extent to which it is embraced by healthcare professionals for some of the tested characteristics.


Our findings highlight the need for the healthcare profession to address the role of implicit biases in disparities in healthcare. More research in actual care settings and a greater homogeneity in methods employed to test implicit biases in healthcare is needed.

Peer Review reports


The term ‘bias’ is typically used to refer to both implicit stereotypes and prejudices and raises serious concerns in healthcare. Psychologists often define bias broadly; such as ‘the negative evaluation of one group and its members relative to another’. Another way to define bias is to stipulate that an implicit association represents a bias only when likely to have a negative impact on an already disadvantaged group; e.g. if someone associates young girls with dolls, this would count as a bias. It is not itself a negative evaluation, but it supports an image of femininity that may prevent girls from excelling in areas traditionally considered ‘masculine’ such as mathematics. Another option is to stipulate that biases are not inherently bad, but only to be avoided when they incline us away from the truth.

In healthcare, we need to think carefully about exactly what is meant by bias. To fulfil the goal of delivering impartial care, healthcare professionals should be wary of any kind of negative evaluation they make that is linked to membership of a group or to a particular characteristic. The psychologists’ definition of bias thus may be adequate for the case of implicit prejudice; there are unlikely, in the context of healthcare, to be any justified reasons for negative evaluations related to group membership. The case of implicit stereotypes differs slightly because stereotypes can be damaging even when they are not negative per se. At least at a theoretical level, there is a difference between an implicit stereotype that leads to a distorted judgement and a legitimate association that correctly tracks real world statistical information. Here, the other definitions of bias presented above may prove more useful.

The majority of people tested from all over the world and within a wide range of demographics show responses to the most widely used test of implicit attitudes, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), that indicate a level of implicit anti-black bias. Other biases tested include gender, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation; there is evidence that these implicit attitudes are widespread among the population worldwide and influence behaviour outside the laboratory. For instance, one widely cited study found that simply changing names from white-sounding ones to black-sounding ones on CVs in the US had a negative effect on callbacks. Implicit bias was suspected to be the culprit, and a replication of the study in Sweden, using Arab-sounding names instead of Swedish-sounding names, did in fact find a correlation between the HR professionals who preferred the CVs with Swedish-sounding names and a higher level of implicit bias towards Arabs.

We may consciously reject negative images and ideas associated with disadvantaged groups (and may belong to these groups ourselves), but we have all been immersed in cultures where these groups are constantly depicted in stereotyped and pejorative ways. Hence the description of ‘aversive racists’: those who explicitly reject racist ideas, but who are found to have implicit race bias when they take a race IAT. Although there is currently a lack of understanding of the exact mechanism by which cultural immersion translates into implicit stereotypes and prejudices, the widespread presence of these biases in egalitarian-minded individuals suggests that culture has more influence than many previously thought.

The implicit biases of concern to health care professionals are those that operate to the disadvantage of those who are already vulnerable. Examples include minority ethnic populations, immigrants, the poor, low health-literacy individuals, sexual minorities, children, women, the elderly, the mentally ill, the overweight and the disabled, but anyone may be rendered vulnerable given a certain context. The vulnerable in health-care are typically members of groups who are already disadvantaged on many levels. Work in political philosophy, such as the De-Shalit and Wolff concept of ‘corrosive disadvantage’, a disadvantage that is likely to lead to further disadvantages, is relevant here. For instance, if a person is poor and constantly worried about making ends meet, this is a disadvantage in itself, but can be corrosive when it leads to further disadvantages. In a country such as Switzerland, where private health insurance is mandatory and yearly premiums can be lowered by increasing the deductible, a high deductible may lead such a person to refrain from visiting a physician because of the potential cost incurred. This, in turn, could mean that the diagnosis of a serious illness is delayed leading to poorer health. In this case, being poor is a corrosive disadvantage because it leads to a further disadvantage of poor health.

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Citation : http://FitzGerald, C., Hurst, S. Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: a systematic review.BMC Med Ethics 18, 19 (2017).

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