Bias in medicine

Prejudiced patients: Offensive comments reported by nearly 60% of surveyed physicians

Emergency docs get it the worst, with 83% reporting incidents of discrimination from patients during the past five years.

Ageism is the most common bias reported by physicians participating in a recent Medscape/WebMD survey, with ethnicity/national origin and gender rounding out the top three categories of discrimination recounted by doctors.

Common targets

Race, religion, the doctor’s weight, political views, accent and sexual orientation were among the most common targets for patient bias. Female physicians (65%) were more likely than males (55%) to report experiencing prejudice from patients, and more frequently received offensive comments about their gender, age and weight. Male physicians were more likely to be insulted about their religion or ethnicity.

Overall, non-white female physicians younger than 35 were most likely to report experiencing prejudice from a patient, with African-American and Asian docs the most likely to hear biased comments. Some 85% of responding physicians noted that either their institution doesn’t provide training for dealing with discrimination or they’re unaware of whether such training is available.

A strong emotional impact

Nearly half of the 822 physicians surveyed said they’d had a patient request a different clinician based on their personal characteristics or background within the past five years. For as many as 40 percent of physicians, the prejudice had a strong emotional impact, although only one in 10 refused to care for a patient because of the negative bias.

The survey also included the views of patients, who cited difficulty in understanding a physician’s accent as the most common reason they would avoid a health care provider.

Despite the findings, researchers noted the number of biased patients is relatively small compared to their impact on doctors, with only one in 10 patients admitting to have changed health care providers because of a characteristic like race or gender. The authors also report that patients typically see about 19 health care providers in their lifetime, while physicians see 19 patients per day, making it far more likely for doctors to encounter bias.

Further reading

‘Discrimination affects us all’: When physicians experience prejudice: A 2016 study offered strategies for physicians on dealing with discrimination. Two DOs weighed in on the advice.

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