Implicit bias informs our decision-making, emotional responses, and assumptions in our careers and personal lives. While explicit biases are easier to identify and amend, implicit biases are unconsciously ingrained and require more work to find and explore.
Oftentimes, implicit bias plays a significant role in healthcare. From RNs to MAs to MDs, implicit bias informs the decisions we make as healthcare providers with every patient every day. In this article, we’ll explore implicit bias and discuss how it impacts our day-to-day lives in all healthcare careers, including travel healthcare.
The first step to overcoming your implicit biases is identifying them. Let’s start with a definition.
Defining Implicit Bias
In general, there are two types of bias:1
- Explicit bias is a known belief or value that causes intentional behaviors, like discrimination, harassment, or exclusion of certain groups or individuals.
- Implicit bias is unconscious, and implicit biases can sometimes directly contradict personal beliefs, leading to unintentional behavior that harms certain groups or individuals.
Explicit biases are generally easy to identify—elements of society like the gender pay gap, white supremacy, and LGBTQ+ hate crimes are some severe examples.
But, implicit biases are harder to see, and they’re informed by parts of our life that often go unnoticed—the gender and racial makeup of our communities and classrooms, the media we consume, and our mentors’ predispositions are just a few things that can create or bolster implicit bias or in other words a subconscious bias.
While healthcare workers often receive overarching bias training to identify and correct explicit biases, implicit biases—and their impacts—generally remain in the shadows.
How Our Implicit Biases Affect Our Caregiving
Implicit biases inform the choices we make, the company we keep, and our decisions in a professional environment. So, what is implicit bias in healthcare, and how does it manifest in our patient care as medical professionals and medical students?
Gender Bias in the Workplace
Some of the most common instances of implicit bias in healthcare embody gender biases.
For instance, a 2021 study reported that patients often mistake women doctors for nurses, and men nurses for doctors, despite different attire and the doctors’ authoritative presences.2 This stereotype for men vs. women health care providers happens all too often.
The study also found that women resident physicians had significantly more negative evaluations by nursing staff compared with resident physician men despite similar evaluation criteria.
Our implicit biases tell us that the men in the room are the authorities, while the women in the room are their inferiors. Even if your values are the complete opposite, if this is your unconscious inclination, your implicit bias will still make you more likely to conform to these social standards, even in a professional environment, such as a healthcare setting.
As a healthcare professional, you can take steps to unlearn these implicit biases in the field, and more importantly, if you are an RN returning to practice, it can be beneficial to brush up on how to avoid bias that can contribute to health disparity in the industry.
Here are some steps that may help:
- Make a point to learn attending and resident physicians’ names and get to know them. Don’t just put a name to a face—try to learn something distinct about them, like why they chose medicine, their professional specialties, and their experiences in healthcare.
- Teach your brain to recognize doctors who are women and nurses who are men as normal. Follow people who meet these descriptions on social media, befriend them at work, or take professional development courses with them.
- Correct your patients when they show signs of implicit gender bias. This will remind your brain of the roles of your colleagues and help to dismantle your unconscious gender expectations.
It’s hard work to overcome implicit biases, but committing to the unlearning process can help.
Impact on Physical Care
The same 2021 study also found that, in the US, maternal and perinatal mortality rates for Black women were three times higher than those for White women. Why?
While the causes of this statistic haven’t been studied, researchers suggest that the causes could be systemic racism, structural racism, stigma against Black mothers, socio-economic inequality, or a combination of all of these rather than exclusively biological factors. In this case, and many others, implicit biases lead to reduced quality of patient care.
Think about your initial reactions and general mood when you treat non-White patients. Even if you don’t realize it, you could be spending less time by their bedsides than you do for their White counterparts. Being cognizant of racial disparities in healthcare and the workplace can make you a better healthcare provider overall. Taking note of our implicit biases is crucial for unlearning them and providing the best patient care possible for everyone who walks through your facility’s doors.
Implicit bias doesn’t just impact our daily practice—it also impacts our training.
The 2021 study analyzed data from a variety of large cohort studies, finding that in-hospital mortality rates for myocardial infarction—a heart attack—in women were 15-20% higher than men.
Women present different heart attack symptoms from men, that sometimes don’t seem cardiac-related, like vomiting and nausea. Since healthcare workers are trained to recognize heart attack symptoms that are “typical,” women’s heart attacks are often misdiagnosed. This highlights the importance of continuing to build on your medical education, as a medical assistant vs. nurse, over even as a doctor, no matter how long you have been in the healthcare industry.
To decrease the likelihood that implicit bias will impact your diagnostic care, keep up with recent studies on gender disparities when it comes to symptom presentation.
Join a Team of Travelers Committed to Overcoming Implicit Bias
Overcoming implicit biases is no simple task. But, implicit bias in healthcare plays a crucial role in our industry, and healthcare professionals can expect nothing but positive outcomes when they work to overcome their unconscious bias.
If you’re looking for a travel nursing agency committed to identifying and unlearning implicit biases in the healthcare field, you’ve come to the right place. At Host Healthcare, we care for the people who care for others—nurses and healthcare professionals just like you.
Our recruiters help travelers find assignments and contracts in facilities that embody their values, and you can trust our team to help you become the best healthcare professional you can be. Apply with us today.
Natalie Red Eagle, MSN, RN
Nursing Specialty: Labor & Delivery, Postpartum
I started as a new graduate nurse in San Diego, CA on a medical/surgical/oncology unit. After finishing the 40 week new graduate program, I transitioned onto a cardiac step down unit. Here I cared for patients before and after cardiac surgery and patients recovering from cerebral vascular accidents. While I loved this specialty, my passion has always been women’s health. My next move was to the Maternal Child Health program where I have been for almost 5 years as a labor and delivery and postpartum nurse. I have the privledge of assisting families during some of the most memorable times of their lives.
- National Center for Cultural Competence. “Two Types of Bias.” Georgetown University, https://nccc.georgetown.edu/bias/module-3/1.php
- Gopal, G.; Chetty, U.; O’Donnell, P.; Gajria, C.; Blackadder-Weinstein, J.. “Implicit bias in healthcare: clinical practice, research and decision making.” Future Healthcare Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8004354/