Stereotypes Are Bad for Your Health

When patients are afraid of being pigeonholed by their doctors, everyone loses.

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Have you ever been dishonest at a checkup because you didn't want your doctor to judge you? Don't worry, you're not alone; however, you could be at risk of having more health problems, according to an October 2015 study from the University of Southern California (USC).

Researchers found that people who have "encountered the threat" of negative stereotypes related to weight, age, race, gender or social class (aka been pigeonholed) in a healthcare setting are more likely to have health issues, such as hypertension and depression.

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Unsurprisingly, they were also found to have difficulty trusting their doctors, were dissatisfied with their care and were less likely to take advantage of preventive treatments, such as the flu vaccine.

When the researchers surveyed about 1,500 people age 50 and older, they found that more than 17 percent reported feeling vulnerable to prejudice in the doctor's office. And people who felt threatened based on multiple identities (e.g. both race and sexuality) had more health problems than people who felt threatened based on a single identity.

According to the researchers, health stereotypes can be perpetuated — often unintentionally — by physicians and public health campaigns. For example, campaigns about sexual health in the LGBTQ community or depression among women can raise awareness, but they may also reinforce existing stereotypes.

"It's not that there aren't real health concerns in specific communities that we need to do more — much more — to address, but how we communicate about these concerns is key," said lead author Cleopatra Abdou, assistant professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and Department of Psychology in a press release

Patients and Doctors Can Beat Bias Together

"I hope people know that they deserve the best care possible that is free of judgment, persecution and bias," says Jennifer Caudle, DO, assistant professor in the department of family medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. "I've often said this to my family and friends — if you don't feel comfortable with a physician or practice, if you don't feel like you're being heard, if you feel you're being judged, then fire that doctor and get out of there!"

Dr. Caudle adds that medical professionals to receive cultural regularly evaluate their ways of thinking. "We need to be very conscious of our actions," she says. "Every physician needs to check their problems at the door. We have to be so cognizant about this as healthcare providers. We have people's lives in our hands."

And the biases can go both ways – Caudle is familiar with prejudice herself. "I've definitely heard my share of patients' biases," she says. "As a female physician and with all of my years of training, I've had patients say they didn't think I was the physician, that I was something else. But it just speaks to the fact that we're all human."

Caudle believes the key to change lies in education. "In New Jersey, every year that we renew our license, we have to show that we've taken so many hours of cultural competency training," she says. "And I think this type of training is important because it keeps this idea fresh in our minds."

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