by Allison Wadlow, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center
Health disparities based on race have been a long-standing problem in the United States. Much light was shed on this matter in recent years prompted by numerous murders of minorities and the Black Lives Matter advocacy movement. It is well known that racial disparities exist within the healthcare system of this country. Even when patients have comparable incomes, similar education, and live in the same geographic location, minority populations sadly do not always receive the same standards of care as their white counterparts.1
Many health professions programs offer training to learners on addressing bias and improving care delivery for all patients. Over the past decade, some popular training programs include Trauma Informed Care, Adverse Childhood Experiences training, and Multicultural Training. These programs have included materials to serve patients better, with the primary focus on patients, not the providers of care.
Bias towards healthcare professionals from underrepresented and marginalized groups is, unfortunately, commonplace. A recent study “Harassment and Discrimination in Medical Training” found that most health professional trainees have experienced bias at some point in their career, most often based on their race, gender, or sexuality.2
To address this problem, medical students and faculty at multiple institutions in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC created a training program for medical students to manage patient bias.3 The goal of this program was to prepare students for the biases they may encounter in practice. The investigators created a simulation exercise whereby participants learned, in a safe environment, to navigate these situations.3
The simulations involved encounters with standardized patients. During the encounter, the student was instructed to tell the patient about a follow-up appointment that had been scheduled with a provider who had a foreign-sounding name. The standardized patient was instructed to either accept this appointment or request an alternative provider. The student was then instructed to use motivational interviewing techniques to understand where the request to change providers stemmed from. The possible reasons for the patient’s request were:
- An untreated hearing loss made it difficult for the patient to understand accents
- A belief that “foreigners shouldn’t be taking American jobs”
- A preference to receive treatment from a physician who shares a similar cultural background due to the patient’s previous experiences of intolerance or disrespect
During the encounter, it was up to the student to determine the root cause of the request. In some instances, the request might lead to better patient care, and it should be honored. For example, in the case of a patient with hearing loss, switching to a provider without an accent, the patient might be able to better distinguish words spoken during the encounter. Of course, if the provider did not have an accent, the student should provide reassurance to the patient. However, in some cases, the request to change providers was racially motivated. Of course, a surname does not always indicate the race of the provider. The point of this training experience was to allow students the opportunity, in a safe and controlled environment, to navigate through a patient request that, on the surface, may be motivated by racial bias. The goal is to develop the skills to uncover the root of these requests, rather than assuming that racism is the problem.
At the beginning and end of the course, students were surveyed to measure their growth. After completing the activities, students reported an increase in their confidence to explore intentions and beliefs, navigate a conversation with a patient exhibiting bias, and use nonverbal skills to demonstrate empathy.3
Addressing bias directed towards providers is not taught in most health professions' curricula or residency training programs. I think health-professional programs should begin to include this type of training so that students and residents are better equipped to manage patient bias.
The first step would be to give students exposure to patients who express a bias toward certain (commonly marginalized) groups. Nearly all students who participated in this simulation exercise stated they were very uncomfortable, but that it was a positive experience to be able to interact in a safe environment. The students stated they felt more prepared to manage these situations with real patients in practice. Because learners should never be intentionally required to interact with people who have racial animus, they would learn how to assess patients’ requests, how to act in the face of bias, and how to move forward with patients who are explicitly or implicitly biased towards them or others.
The next step would be to teach learners how to address patients who have explicit biases based on race, gender identity, and sexual preferences. Students must first be taught how to approach patients and uncover the rationale behind their biases. Once the student has uncovered the reasoning for the bias, there will be times when patients are explicitly racist, and students will need to be prepared (mentally) to manage the situation. Do they simply ignore and endure the bias? Do they refer the patient to alternative providers? Do they know when it is safe to speak up and say something to the patient? While there are no easy answers to these questions, the least we could do is provide students the opportunity to experience this type of conversation with patients before having to deal with it in the real world.
As with the implementation of any new training, cost becomes a factor to consider. The cost of hiring standardized patients may not be feasible for many programs. One workaround is to have volunteers serve as standardized patients, which could include faculty, upperclassmen, or alumni. Another way to mitigate the costs could be to have recordings of patient encounters, pausing the recording at various times to discuss with the class what they are observing. This option could open a rich class discussion on the negative consequences of bias toward marginalized patients as well as providers.
Bias in healthcare is not something we can eliminate, but we can build our skills to recognize and mitigate it. We can prepare our students to uncover and address the biases they may encounter, including the bias that patients may express toward them or their professional colleagues. It is not ethical to know a problem exists, one that can mentally harm our learners, and do nothing to prepare them. It’s time to talk about patient bias and teach health professional students how to manage it.
- Williams DR, Rucker TD. Understanding and addressing racial disparities in health care. Health Care Financ Rev 2000;21(4):75-90.
- Fnais N, Soobiah C, Chen MH, et al. Harassment and discrimination in medical training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Med 2014;89(5):817-27.
- Zewdie M, Duval M, Liu C, et al. Virtual Communication Across Differences: Development of a Workshop on Managing Patient Bias. Acad Med 2023;98(2):209-213.