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Health Providers Biased Toward Patients With Same Sexual Preferences

October 13th, 2016

SEATTLE – As hard as you might try to treat all patients equally, chances are that your bias is showing when it comes to sexual preference.

That’s according to a new study, published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, which looked at a range of healthcare providers and their implicit attitudes towards lesbian women and gay men.

The study, led by University of Washington researchers, found moderate to strong implicit preferences for straight people over lesbian and gay people among heterosexual providers. At the same time, lesbian and gay health providers expressed implicit and explicit preferences for lesbian and gay people over straight people. Bisexual providers, meanwhile, were found to have mixed preferences.

Mental health providers had the weakest implicit bias for heterosexual patients over those who are lesbian or gay, while nurses held the strongest implicit bias for heterosexuals, according to the research.

In essence, according to the authors, healthcare providers, similar to others in society, hold a bias for people who share their own sexual identity.

"We want all providers to be proficient in treating diverse populations, including the LGBT population," said lead author Janice Sabin, PhD, MSW, research associate professor in biomedical informatics and medical education, adding that the clinical care of the LGBT population is a somewhat neglected area in curriculum in nursing, medicine and other areas of healthcare education.

For the study, researchers used results from the Sexuality Implicit Association Test to assess presence of implicit bias towards either heterosexual or homosexual individuals in more than 200,000 participants between May 2006 and December 2012.

Voluntarily accessing the survey online, test takers were asked to indicate their explicit preferences towards heterosexual, lesbian and gay people by endorsing statements ranging from "I strongly prefer straight people to gay people” to "I strongly prefer gay people to straight people." The study categorized respondents by their profession –medical doctor, nurse, mental health provider, other treatment provider or non-provider – to specifically address healthcare provider attitudes.

Sabin pointed out in a University of Washington press release that "training for healthcare providers about treating sexual minority patients is an area in great need of attention."

“Implicit preferences for heterosexual people versus lesbian and gay people are pervasive among heterosexual healthcare providers,” the authors conclude, “Future research should investigate how implicit sexual prejudice affects care.”

In general, the study found explicit preferences to be much weaker than implicit ones.

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