To tackle racial disparities, healthcare must examine unconscious bias

Even as the nation's overall healthcare outcomes improve, racial disparities in both treatment and outcomes persist, and healthcare professionals must consider the role their unconscious behavior may play in the situation, according to National Public Radio.

Research shows that providers often respond to African-American patients' complaints of pain with less urgency than white patients with the same problems, prescribing less pain medication and referring them for advanced cardiac care less often, NPR reports.

These disparities don't come from conscious ill intent, but rather unconscious bias, which is more likely to surface in high-stress environments and situations such as a hospital setting, according to the article. In a fast-paced environment, many clinicians allow instinct to take over, which brings these unconscious prejudices to the surface, especially combined with training that teaches doctors to stand by their initial decisions.

"You're dealing with people who are frightened, they're reactive," Howard Ross, founder of management consulting firm Cook Ross, told NPR. "If you're doing triage in the emergency room, for example, you don't have time to sit back and contemplate, 'Why am I thinking about this?' You have to instantaneously react."

Recognizing this phenomenon, many medical schools now train students in checking these instincts. The University of Massachusetts, University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the University of California, San Francisco have all implemented formal curricula on unconscious bias. For example, UCSF's program requires all first-year medical students to take a workshop in which they interrogate their own preconceived notions and their origins.

Although it's too early to analyze the results of this approach, providers hope they will prove more effective than traditional workplace diversity initiatives, which research shows are often counterproductive because they engender guilt or resentment in participants, according to the article.

To learn more:
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