Conference to Study Medical Bias

Mar 9, 2017

Charlottesville will play host to an unusual medical conference next week – a meeting organized to help health care professionals avoid bias as they deal with a diverse patient population.

UVA's Dr. Michael Williams helped to organize a national conference on medical bias.
Credit University of Virginia

Experts from across the nation will be coming to Virginia next Wednesday and Thursday for a conference on medical bias.  Dr. Michael Williams is Director of the Center for Health Policy at the University of Virginia, which will host the event.  He says doctors, nurses and other health care professionals make assumptions, for example, about women.

“The term hysteria is one that was used in antiquity – only applied to women, and it had to do with anxiety disorders and reactions to stress and the belief that the “frailer sex” was unable to handle these things," Williams explains. "I would love to say that those biases have died, but there’s reason to believe that’s not the case.”

Williams says  they may also assume things about African-Americans or Hispanics.

“People of color are thought of as less likely to follow a prescribed course of care – medication use, diet change, and other things."

That, he adds, is not true – although low-income people may find it more difficult to afford medication or to have a follow-up visit with the doctor. To avoid mistaken assumptions, he says medical professionals must begin with the idea that each patient has unique attitudes and limitations.

“If we start with the assumptions that the person across the table is uniquely an individual and ask questions specific to their individual circumstance, then we begin the journey toward understanding them as an individual and describing a shared plan of care that meets that person’s needs in their circumstances.”

Williams says the issue is a big one, and this meeting has attracted some top names in medicine, including a national expert on stereotypes.

“Dr. Claude Steele, Dr. Louis Sullivan, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Vivian Pinn, whose name is on one of our buildings here.  There’s a long list of people, and I’ll be very honest.  I was surprised.  I expected we would get some nos, but  everybody said yes.”

As part of next week’s meeting, health care professionals will brainstorm other ways to avoid bias, and their ideas will be published and shared after the conference.  It's open to the public, but participants must register in advance at https://med.virginia.edu/cme/