Physicians and racial bias: junk science “study” debunked

Bele and LokaiLast year Harvard Medical School researcher Alexander Green and colleagues made headlines with their study “Implicit bias among physicians and its prediction of thrombolysis decisions for black and white patients” published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.  The study suggested that doctors who scored higher for “bias” were less likely than the other doctors to give thrombolytic or “clot-busting” drugs to the black patients.

John Tierney at the New York Times reports that the study appears to have been deeply flawed:

[O]n the whole doctors ended up prescribing the clot-busting drugs to blacks just as often as to whites. The doctors scoring low on bias had a pronounced preference for giving the drugs to blacks, while high-scoring doctors had a relatively small preference for giving the drugs to whites – meaning that the more “biased” doctors actually treated blacks and whites more equally.

Does this result really prove dangerous bias in the emergency room? Or, as critics suggest, does it illustrate problems with the way researchers have been using split-second reactions on a computer test to diagnose an epidemic of racial bias?

In a series of scathing critiques, some psychologists have argued that this computerized tool, the Implicit Association Test, or I.A.T., has methodological problems and uses arbitrary classifications of bias.

I don’t know if Green, et al (as well as the peer reviewers at the Journal of General Internal Medicine) are guilty of indulging in agenda-driven pseudoscience or just sloppy research.

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