Harvard Study Details Doctors' Race Bias

In a study that has obvious implications for the legal profession, too, Harvard University researchers have detailed how unconscious bias can significantly affect life-and-death decision-making by doctors.

Although previous studies have documented that the bias exists, this is the first time researchers have explained how it happens that a doctor will order, say, life-saving heart or stroke treatment for a white patient but withhold it from a comparable African-American patient, reports the Boston Globe. The study focused on trainee doctors working in Atlanta and Boston.

“We found that as doctors’ unconscious biases against blacks increased, their likelihood of giving [clot-busting] treatment decreased,” says Dr. Alexander R. Green of Massachusetts General Hospital, the study’s lead author. “It’s not a matter of you being a racist. It’s really a matter of the way your brain processes information is influenced by things you’ve seen, things you’ve experienced, the way media has presented things.”

Experts say the study is likely to spur professional soul-searching and changes in curriculum for both medical students and practicing doctors taking continuing education courses. Another suggested means of self-improvement for doctors is using an anonymous Internet assessment, such as one offered by Harvard.

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