UMMS Affiliation

School of Medicine; Senior Scholars Program; Department of Family Medicine and Community Health; Department of Quantitative Health Sciences; Office of Student Affairs; Department of Psychiatry

Faculty Mentor

Sonia Nagy Chimienti, MD

Publication Date


Document Type



Medical Education


Background: The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a well-researched method of identifying an individual's implicit bias. Occurring outside of conscious awareness, implicit bias manifests itself in the form of nonverbal thoughts, behaviors and actions that influence an individual and that are suggestive of unequal treatment. In the undergraduate medical education curriculum, the IAT is commonly used to assess the medical students' personal bias. Studies from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) have shown that bias is ranked highly as one of the least addressed educational goals in medical education and training. The medical literature suggests that implicit bias affects how clinical faculty make patient care decisions, and that this in turn affects medical student education. Data collected from our medical school's first year curriculum suggest that there are missed opportunities to explore the effects of bias on health outcomes.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to analyze comments in reflection papers submitted by students enrolled in the required Determinants of Health (DoH) course during the Fall 2014- Spring 2015 curriculum at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). The DoH course assignment asked students to select a reading, experience in taking the IAT or class discussion, and comment on how the material led to new insight about the potential effect of biases or stereotyping on future clinical decisions. The themes from this analysis provided context for relevant areas for further exploration of the impact of implicit bias in medical education.

Method: 125 first-year medical students (48% female, 52% male; mean age 25 years; 95% from Massachusetts, 9% identified as under-represented ethnic/racial minorities) in the entering class of 2014 submitted written reflections following attendance and discussion-based learning in the DoH course. Grounded theory methodology was used for the qualitative analysis of the comments. Papers were de-identified, read, and codes were constructed according to emerging themes (descriptive, diagnostic, and prescriptive) found.

The codebook development focused on "bias," "systemic/institutional bias," "individual bias," "awareness" and "health disparities". Student commentary was coded for themes and tallied for total amount of discussion for each theme. Inter-rater reliability was calculated for 20% of the sample using Cohen's kappa.

Results: The following themes emerged: 1) an understanding of the IAT and the results of the IAT; 2) a definition of bias; 3) a suggestion of source of bias; 4) factors informing bias; and 5) action items to combat the effects of implicit bias on future physicians. Ninety-five of 125 students' comments (76%) mapped to descriptive themes associated with bias; 27% (n=26/95) of comments suggested all individuals have bias; 57% (n=55) of comments suggested potential sources of bias, ranging from cultural and community upbringings to societal media; 83% (n=79) of comments focused on the negative effect implicit bias can have on decision-making in patient care; and nearly 96% (n=91) of comments felt that acknowledging their own implicit bias would benefit their interactions with patients in their future medical careers. Additionally, 58% (n=73/125) of students' comments noted that making a conscious effort to self-reflect and address bias would improve decision-making, and 32% (n=40) of comments noted it was a physician's responsibility to dismantle the bias found in the healthcare system (15 comments suggested this happen through avenues such as advocacy and legislation). Seventy students' comments (56%) mapped to comments discussing the lAT. Forty-three percent (n=30) comments noted students surprised by their results and 29% (n=20) of comments suggested that the student was not surprised. While 75 students (60%) did not comment on their reaction, the IAT sparked self-reflection of implicit bias and its origin in 68 of these students, and 16% (n=20) of comments found the IAT to be a valuable tool in identifying implicit bias.

With regard to the current climate ofhealthcare, 40 responding students (32%) identified racism or racial bias existing within the medical field, noting potential sources of racism including lack of trust in physicians from historical events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and societal inequalities as a whole. Additionally, 29 students' comments (23%) mentioned systemic/institutional bias as potentially having an impact on individual bias and vice versa.

Conclusions: The use of the IAT in the medical education curriculum is informative and the medical student response to it is impactful. Medical students gain insight into the importance of understanding personal implicit bias and the effect it may have on clinical decision-making through courses such as Determinants of Health. Students have the ability and the desire to identify and self-reflect on the development of behaviors and skills that will facilitate improved decision-making in the care of patients, and improved patient interactions. This analysis also points to the significance of further exploration of faculty involvement in these topics to further engage medical students throughout their undergraduate medical training. As over 93% of the first-year medical school courses did not utilize race identifiers and non-medical factors in clinical vignettes, this is another opportunity to apply real-life scenarios to the educational curriculum.


implicit bias, Implicit Association Test, IAT, medical education curriculum

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2016 Senior Scholars Program Poster Presentation Day


Racquel Wells participated in this study as a medical student as part of the Senior Scholars research program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This poster was presented on Senior Scholars Program Poster Presentation Day at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA, on April 27, 2016.