British Columbia

Unconscious biases could be affecting how doctors treat patients

Ancient survival skills like unconscious biases, which were used to quickly decide if someone is a friend or foe, may currently be affecting patient care in our hospitals.

'It’s hidden from us. It’s not something we know we’re doing'

Unconscious biases may affect the quality of patient care delivered by doctors. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Doctors describe them as ancient survival skills that once helped us decide if a person was friend or foe. But new research shows that unconscious biases may be affecting hospital patient care.

"Unconscious biases are really those snap decisions we make because we have to take mental shortcuts," said Vancouver Coastal Health researcher Dr. Andrea Townson.

"It's normal, but it's not something we know we're doing."

Townson leads faculty and medical residents through unconscious bias workshops that highlight patterns of thinking that can lead doctors to make mistaken assumptions.

Andrea Townson is Vancouver Coastal Health researcher and co-head of the department of medicine at UBC. (Rick Hansen Institute)

"We may blame a patient for their addiction, and that means that from a health care perspective that person may be at risk of not receiving as thorough care, because we may treat them differently in a non-emergent situation, we may not trust them as much," said Townson.

To evaluate people's unconscious biases, Townson has her participants take a social cognition test.

The bias map shows the range of emotions related to unconscious bias. (Vancouver Coastal Health)

Even Townson found that she had a bias against women in science, despite herself being a woman who works in science.

She says the origins of an individual's biases may stem from societal or cultural stereotypes.

Solutions to overcoming unconscious bias in a clinical setting may include: establishing common ground with a patient, or reflecting on one's biases before interacting with a patient are ways to address the issue, said Townson.

"I can ask questions about your pain or your symptoms, but it's learning to ask those unscripted questions to get that personal connection," she said.

Her team will continue to offer the workshops to residents and physicians, and she hopes to perform a research study in the future to measure the workshop's impact on patient care.

With files from The Early Edition