Posted on October 29, 2008

Doctors in Study Prefer Whites to Blacks

Vanessa Ho, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 29, 2008


Racial disparities have long been documented in health care, but a University of Washington study on doctors’ possible biases is validating the feelings of many African-American patients.

Released Tuesday, the study found that most doctors unconsciously prefer white people to black people. The exception was black doctors, who exhibited no preference for either race.

Researcher Janice Sabin was quick to say the results do not imply prejudice.

“It’s important to not leave the impression that this necessarily affects behavior, because we really don’t know,” said Sabin, an assistant UW professor in medical education and training.

More research is needed, she said, to know whether bias affects care.

But the study—the first large one to explore bias among doctors—can help providers be aware of hidden attitudes, Sabin said, “which can only improve patient communication and clinical interaction.”

The research is among the latest to use the Implicit Association Test, a famous psychological tool developed by a UW professor more than 10 years ago to measure unconscious bias.


A 2002 landmark report from the Institute of Medicine found that minorities receive poorer care than whites in many areas, from transplants to cancer to cardiovascular disease.

A Dartmouth study found that blacks in Seattle receive crucial blood tests at lower rates than whites, and undergo leg amputations—often caused by diabetes and vascular disease—more often than whites.

Studies that control for differences in income and education levels also have found racial disparities in care, Fleming said.

None of that surprised Lakesha Braggs, an African-American human-resources employee from Shoreline who sees a white doctor in Everett.

“The doctor kind of treats you as ‘less than,’ “ she said. She has often watched her doctor act pleasantly with white patients, only to turn impatient with her. “It’s an underlying cultural issue. It’s just something you live with.”