Context: Studies documenting racial/ethnic disparities in health care frequently implicate physicians' unconscious biases. No study to date has measured physicians' unconscious racial bias to test whether this predicts physicians' clinical decisions.
Objective: To test whether physicians show implicit race bias and whether the magnitude of such bias predicts thrombolysis recommendations for black and white patients with acute coronary syndromes.
Design, setting, and participants: An internet-based tool comprising a clinical vignette of a patient presenting to the emergency department with an acute coronary syndrome, followed by a questionnaire and three Implicit Association Tests (IATs). Study invitations were e-mailed to all internal medicine and emergency medicine residents at four academic medical centers in Atlanta and Boston; 287 completed the study, met inclusion criteria, and were randomized to either a black or white vignette patient.
Main outcome measures: IAT scores (normal continuous variable) measuring physicians' implicit race preference and perceptions of cooperativeness. Physicians' attribution of symptoms to coronary artery disease for vignette patients with randomly assigned race, and their decisions about thrombolysis. Assessment of physicians' explicit racial biases by questionnaire.
Results: Physicians reported no explicit preference for white versus black patients or differences in perceived cooperativeness. In contrast, IATs revealed implicit preference favoring white Americans (mean IAT score = 0.36, P < .001, one-sample t test) and implicit stereotypes of black Americans as less cooperative with medical procedures (mean IAT score 0.22, P < .001), and less cooperative generally (mean IAT score 0.30, P < .001). As physicians' prowhite implicit bias increased, so did their likelihood of treating white patients and not treating black patients with thrombolysis (P = .009).
Conclusions: This study represents the first evidence of unconscious (implicit) race bias among physicians, its dissociation from conscious (explicit) bias, and its predictive validity. Results suggest that physicians' unconscious biases may contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in use of medical procedures such as thrombolysis for myocardial infarction.