Healthcare stereotyping can negatively affect patient outcomes

Stereotyping patients according to their age, race, weight, socioeconomic status, gender or other factors can have negative impacts on their health, according to new research. 

In particular, patients who feel judged by healthcare workers are less likely to follow medical instructions and more likely to mistrust their doctors and other healthcare providers, according to a research announcement from the University of Southern California. These patients are also more prone to hypertension and depression and likely to rate their own health more poorly. 

The study, published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that overall, patients who feel judged by health providers are less likely to access readily available preventive care such as flu shots and to put off treating health problems until they reach higher levels of acuity than most patients.

Out of more than 1,500 patients who participated in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, 17 percent said they felt vulnerable to prejudice in the healthcare setting due to their "racial or ethnic identity, gender, socioeconomic status, weight or age." These people were worse off health-wise and less likely to seek treatment.

Some healthcare stereotyping can be an inadvertent side effect of health awareness campaigns, noted lead author Cleopatra Abdou, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and Department of Psychology. "An unintended byproduct of public health campaigns is that they often communicate and reinforce negative stereotypes about certain groups of people," said Abdou.

"As a result, they may inadvertently increase experiences of what we call 'healthcare stereotype threat,' which can affect healthcare efficacy and even prompt some patients to avoid care altogether," she explained.

Examples of campaigns that have such consequences may include those aimed at educating African-American women about birth control, LGBT people about HIV/AIDS, women about depression and programs that address memory problems in older adults, she said, as they can cause people outside these groups to harbor misconceptions. That's not to say that certain health concerns shouldn't be addressed in specific communities, she said, but that the way healthcare organizations communicate about them needs improvement.

Training physicians and healthcare staff about cultural differences can help break down stereotypes and make patients feel understood and welcomed in the healthcare environment. Cultural competency training can also help modern healthcare workers walk a delicate line regarding patients of differing faiths or those with different sexual orientations and gender expressions. 

"It's time for us to implement policies that enhance medical school training in cultural competency and increase the diversity of our physicians and broader healthcare workforce," Abdou said in the study announcement. "Hospitals and other healthcare institutions with inclusive policies which welcome diversity and celebrate tolerance, both symbolically and explicitly, hold great promise for reducing healthcare stereotype threat and the short- and long-term health disparities that we are now learning result from it."

To learn more:
- read the study announcement via Science Daily
- here's the study abstract