Background: Implicit biases involve associations outside conscious awareness that lead to a negative evaluation of a person on the basis of irrelevant characteristics such as race or gender. This review examines the evidence that healthcare professionals display implicit biases towards patients.
Methods: PubMed, PsychINFO, PsychARTICLE and CINAHL were searched for peer-reviewed articles published between 1st March 2003 and 31st March 2013. Two reviewers assessed the eligibility of the identified papers based on precise content and quality criteria. The references of eligible papers were examined to identify further eligible studies.
Results: Forty two articles were identified as eligible. Seventeen used an implicit measure (Implicit Association Test in fifteen and subliminal priming in two), to test the biases of healthcare professionals. Twenty five articles employed a between-subjects design, using vignettes to examine the influence of patient characteristics on healthcare professionals' attitudes, diagnoses, and treatment decisions. The second method was included although it does not isolate implicit attitudes because it is recognised by psychologists who specialise in implicit cognition as a way of detecting the possible presence of implicit bias. Twenty seven studies examined racial/ethnic biases; ten other biases were investigated, including gender, age and weight. Thirty five articles found evidence of implicit bias in healthcare professionals; all the studies that investigated correlations found a significant positive relationship between level of implicit bias and lower quality of care.
Discussion: The evidence indicates that healthcare professionals exhibit the same levels of implicit bias as the wider population. The interactions between multiple patient characteristics and between healthcare professional and patient characteristics reveal the complexity of the phenomenon of implicit bias and its influence on clinician-patient interaction. The most convincing studies from our review are those that combine the IAT and a method measuring the quality of treatment in the actual world. Correlational evidence indicates that biases are likely to influence diagnosis and treatment decisions and levels of care in some circumstances and need to be further investigated. Our review also indicates that there may sometimes be a gap between the norm of impartiality and the extent to which it is embraced by healthcare professionals for some of the tested characteristics.
Conclusions: Our findings highlight the need for the healthcare profession to address the role of implicit biases in disparities in healthcare. More research in actual care settings and a greater homogeneity in methods employed to test implicit biases in healthcare is needed.
Keywords: Attitudes of health personnel; Healthcare disparities; Implicit bias; Prejudice; Stereotyping.