The Impact of Cognitive Stressors in the Emergency Department on Physician Implicit Racial Bias

Acad Emerg Med. 2016 Mar;23(3):297-305. doi: 10.1111/acem.12901. Epub 2016 Feb 22.


Objectives: The emergency department (ED) is characterized by stressors (e.g., fatigue, stress, time pressure, and complex decision-making) that can pose challenges to delivering high-quality, equitable care. Although it has been suggested that characteristics of the ED may exacerbate reliance on cognitive heuristics, no research has directly investigated whether stressors in the ED impact physician racial bias, a common heuristic. We seek to determine if physicians have different levels of implicit racial bias post-ED shift versus preshift and to examine associations between demographics and cognitive stressors with bias.

Methods: This repeated-measures study of resident physicians in a pediatric ED used electronic pre- and postshift assessments of implicit racial bias, demographics, and cognitive stressors. Implicit bias was measured using the Race Implicit Association Test (IAT). Linear regression models compared differences in IAT scores pre- to postshift and determined associations between participant demographics and cognitive stressors with postshift IAT and pre- to postshift difference scores.

Results: Participants (n = 91) displayed moderate prowhite/antiblack bias on preshift (mean ± SD = 0.50 ± 0.34, d = 1.48) and postshift (mean ± SD = 0.55 ± 0.39, d = 1.40) IAT scores. Overall, IAT scores did not differ preshift to postshift (mean increase = 0.05, 95% CI = -0.02 to 0.14, d = 0.13). Subanalyses revealed increased pre- to postshift bias among participants working when the ED was more overcrowded (mean increase = 0.09, 95% CI = 0.01 to 0.17, d = 0.24) and among those caring for >10 patients (mean increase = 0.17, 95% CI = 0.05 to 0.27, d = 0.47). Residents' demographics (including specialty), fatigue, busyness, stressfulness, and number of shifts were not associated with postshift IAT or difference scores. In multivariable models, ED overcrowding was associated with greater postshift bias (coefficient = 0.11 per 1 unit of NEDOCS score, SE = 0.05, 95% CI = 0.00 to 0.21).

Conclusions: While resident implicit bias remained stable overall preshift to postshift, cognitive stressors (overcrowding and patient load) were associated with increased implicit bias. Physicians in the ED should be aware of how cognitive stressors may exacerbate implicit racial bias.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition
  • Decision Making
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Racial Groups
  • Racism / psychology*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*