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New research reveals gender and racial bias in medical care

CHARLOTTE (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – New research on the University of Oregon suggests that doctors communicate differently with patients based on race and gender.

David Markowitz, a language psychology researcher at the University of Oregon, analyzed 1.8 million medical records from a health care system in Boston. Research has shown that caregivers tend to be more impersonal with women and pay less attention to the negative experience of black patients.

“What we’re seeing in the data is that there’s a lot of consistency in actual language, word-level differences when we look at caregiver reports compared to other studies that have looked at disparities gender and ethnicity,” Markowitz said. “Physicians caring for black patients tend to use fewer emotional terms, so words such as pain, bad, worse, they use fewer negative and less positive terms when referring to black patients compared to to white patients.”

The research aligns with longstanding claims of health bias. Fernando Little, director of corporate diversity at Atrium Health, says the results confirm what many people already know.

“There have been historical occurrences of inequalities in medicine for various dimensions of diversity,” Little said. “We know the Tuskegee Experience and the story around racial inferiority in medicine.

Little says bias is proactively addressed at Atrium Health.

“We do our best to get ahead of these cases by making sure our providers and clinicians understand what their unconscious biases may be. We’re all good people, but we all have biases,” Little said.

When it comes to black women, the research found that the group was questioned more by healthcare providers compared to other races and genders.

“We need to make sure we’re being honest by helping our providers identify those biases, and then working with them to mitigate those biases, with the goal of providing a great patient experience,” Little said.

In addition to internal work, Little encourages patients to feel empowered to raise concerns about care with another provider or the the patient experience team.

“You can work with a clinician, your nurse, or just about anyone on that care team to say who can I tell about my experience,” Little said. “Everyone is empowered to give you the information you need.”

Markowitz hopes health systems nationwide will use the research to remind people of the importance of intentional work to reduce bias.

“It shows that there is a bias at the system level, we often talk about the fact that there may only be a few bad actors in a particular system. But what this evidence suggests is that when we look at thousands of caregivers, thousands of patients, there are these subtle patterns of bias,” Markowitz said.

Markowitz said if the stigma persists, it could negatively impact patient health and care.

“You can imagine that a person’s care will also be severely affected if bias is part of the system and built into the system,” Markowitz said. “We have to find ways to mitigate it and recognize it and then find solutions.”

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