Friday, December 16, 2011

Disparities Forum explores unconscious bias


“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. On Nov. 30, Augustus A. White, MD, PhD, presented “What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Would Want Us to Know about Health Care Disparities,” at the annual MGH Disparities Forum. White addressed how subconscious stereotyping influences doctor-patient interactions, diagnosis and treatment, which is the subject of his recent book, “Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care.”

“When are we most vulnerable? When are we most frightened? When do we most need help?” White asked the audience in the O’Keeffe Auditorium. “It’s when we’re sick.”

White, who is orthopædic surgeon-in-chief emeritus at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Ellen and Melvin Gordon Distinguished Professor of Medical Education at Harvard Medical School, presented research showing which populations are more likely to experience discrimination in health care – including African-Americans, women and individuals with disabilities. He pointed out that many people fall into at least one of these categories or know someone who does. White described concrete examples of disparities in health care: for example, research shows that Latinos receive less pain medicine for bone fractures than their white counterparts.

White said that many people, however, are not aware they are biased. He shared a link to a website,, which offers a series of questionnaires – known as Implicit Association Tests – to help individuals realize, understand and address their unconscious biases. After demonstrating that biases do exist and contribute to health care disparities, White offered ideas about ways to reduce or eliminate disparities, including improving health literacy of patients, educating caregivers about disparities and increasing the diversity of caregivers.

The Disparities Forum was sponsored by the MGH Committee on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and co-sponsored by the Disparities Solutions Center, the Center for Community Health Improvement, Patient Care Services, the Multicultural Affairs Office, the Association of Multicultural Members of Partners and the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization.

Read more articles from the 12/16/11 Hotline issue.


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