Background: Clinician bias contributes to healthcare disparities, and the language used to describe a patient may reflect that bias. Although medical records are an integral method of communicating about patients, no studies have evaluated patient records as a means of transmitting bias from one clinician to another.
Objective: To assess whether stigmatizing language written in a patient medical record is associated with a subsequent physician-in-training's attitudes towards the patient and clinical decision-making.
Design: Randomized vignette study of two chart notes employing stigmatizing versus neutral language to describe the same hypothetical patient, a 28-year-old man with sickle cell disease.
Participants: A total of 413 physicians-in-training: medical students and residents in internal and emergency medicine programs at an urban academic medical center (54% response rate).
Main measures: Attitudes towards the hypothetical patient using the previously validated Positive Attitudes towards Sickle Cell Patients Scale (range 7-35) and pain management decisions (residents only) using two multiple-choice questions (composite range 2-7 representing intensity of pain treatment).
Key results: Exposure to the stigmatizing language note was associated with more negative attitudes towards the patient (20.6 stigmatizing vs. 25.6 neutral, p < 0.001). Furthermore, reading the stigmatizing language note was associated with less aggressive management of the patient's pain (5.56 stigmatizing vs. 6.22 neutral, p = 0.003).
Conclusions: Stigmatizing language used in medical records to describe patients can influence subsequent physicians-in-training in terms of their attitudes towards the patient and their medication prescribing behavior. This is an important and overlooked pathway by which bias can be propagated from one clinician to another. Attention to the language used in medical records may help to promote patient-centered care and to reduce healthcare disparities for stigmatized populations.
Keywords: bias; clinical decision-making; communication; disparities; language; medical record; stigma.