University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

Does Unconscious Bias Affect How Pediatricians Manage Their Patients?

Gisela Chelimsky, MD; Pippa Simpson, PhD, Mingen Feng, MS; Earnestine Willis, MD

WMJ. 2022;121(1):18-25

Download full text pdf.


Background: Both implicit bias—referred to as unconscious bias—and explicit bias affect how clinicians manage patients. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) has incremental predictive validity relative to self-reports of unconscious bias. Few studies have uniquely specified the impact of unconscious bias in pediatric practices.

Objective: We aimed to assess the influence of unconscious bias on decision-making in the faculty in a pediatric academic center using the IAT, in addition to and separately applying clinical vignettes with racial and socioeconomic class associations in both tools as it relates to clinicians’ race, gender, years in practice, education achieved by the clinician’s parents, and language spoken.

Methods: We conducted a prospective quality control evaluation of faculty in an academic center’s pediatrics department. An anonymous online tool was used to gather IAT responses, clinical vignette responses, demographics, and explicit bias questions.

Results: Of 295 faculty members (73% females), 230 completed the questionnaire, at least in part. Faculty reported on the explicit bias questions, neutral feelings when comparing the demands of educated vs noneducated patients, African American vs European American patients, and patients in the upper vs lower socioeconomic class. Of the approximately two-thirds who answered the IAT, faculty showed preference for European American and upper socioeconomic class. However, the clinical vignettes revealed no differences in how faculty responded to patients based on race or socioeconomic status when stratified by factors listed above, except physicians who favor upper socioeconomic class over lower socioeconomic class were more likely to give a detailed explanation of options if the patient’s parent was upper socioeconomic class (P = 0.022).

Conclusions: Pediatricians exhibit racial and socioeconomic unconscious bias that minimally affects decision-making, at least based on vignette responses.

Author Affiliations: Department of Pediatrics Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia (Chelimsky); Department of Pediatrics, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Simpson, Feng, Willis).
Corresponding Author: Gisela Chelimsky, MD, Department of Pediatrics, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA; email gisela.grotewold
Funding/Support: None declared.
Financial Disclosures: Gisela Chelimsky, MD, is a co-owner of PainSTakers LLC.
Share WMJ