Implicit Bias: A life and death condition

12/02/2016 01:40 pm ET

During the recent election season Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” and Hillary Clinton both used the term “implicit bias” and acknowledged its effects on our attitudes and behavior toward one another. Implicit bias lives beneath the surface of our unconscious and yet it shapes our attitudes and actions toward others.

Recently, I asked a group of medical residents at our hospital to journal their experiences and observations in clinical settings and to describe how those implicit biases impacted patient care.

I received the following examples:

· A Caucasian boy with an abscess was nearly discharged from the ER with a less-effective medication because his parents were young and not well dressed, leading physicians to assume he was on Medicaid. It turned out he had private insurance and could afford the right drug for his condition.

· In another instance, a young African American woman was considered a “drug seeker” because of multiple trips to the emergency department complaining of headaches. Residents believed there was nothing really wrong with her but an attending physician suggested a full neurological work up; an MRI revealed a brain tumor. Indeed, the woman had a physiologic cause for her headaches.

As these medical examples illustrate, implicit bias can be a life or death issue. Just as it can mean life or death in the streets of our cities, it is also critical in health care settings that implicit bias be recognized for entrenching health disparities and sustaining inequities.

Also known as “implicit social cognition,” implicit bias reminds me of the term “pentimento,” a notion derived from the Italian word ”pentirsi,” which means to repent or change one’s mind. It is also used to refer to a “painter’s repentance” such as when an artist begins to paint something, then changes his or her mind and paints over the original image with something completely new. Over time, the top layer of paint fades, becomes transparent and the original image that was once hidden is revealed.

My career has focused on the social and economic factors affecting our urban communities. Now a long look at individual bias at the personal level complements that work. The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on superficial characteristics of race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning very early through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, in later life media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.

So, implicit bias, like pentimento, lives beneath the surface of our unconscious and yet very definitively shapes our attitudes and our actions toward others.

When politicians and pundits admit they own their implicit biases, they challenge the rest of us to do the same. Similarly our medical professionals show how us how critical it is to look beneath the surface in order to fully see and comprehend the people with whom we interact; the surface simply does not tell us enough. If ever there were a time to recognize and address the biases we hold, and to reach out to others who are different in appearance, thought or experience, it is now. By seeing beyond the surface of others, perhaps we can achieve mutual understanding and respect.

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