I just came back from Step 2, and, no, official oversight committee, this is not a blog entry about any details of the exam; I understand that such postings are forbidden.
At the end of our 4th year all of us now have to take an exam that is practical, called step 2 CS; we line up in our white coats, with our non-augmented stethoscopes, without or accessory brains (PDAs), and go in to see 12 standardized patients. In 15 minutes, we have to take a history, do a physical exam, and present our impression to the patient. Then we have 10 minutes to write a note with what tests we want to order. The whole thing costs over $1,000, which I think is a racket, personally. Who's idea was it to charge 4th year students, those whose loans have most likely run out, over a grand for a required test? At least they supplied lunch--cold cuts and pasta salad. That extra scone was about $450.
It's not a bad test, actually. But what I wanted to talk about today is a bit more interesting than details of cases. For whatever reason, there were four of the twelve standardized patients I had that were African-American. I think, having thought about it, that I treated them differently.
I didn't mean to, certainly. However, in the exam situation, it was with young, African-American standardized patients that I forgot, more than others, to tell them about tests I would consider routine in their situation. Perhaps I'm imagining things; or, perhaps there's something to the finding that minorities get poor health care even when you control for income. What was going on? Did I think them less likely to need the test? Did I consciously want them to have a missed illness? I'm sure not. Rather, it was likely my brain did what it did, distracted by the pressure of the test.
I've spoken about Malcolm Gladwell's books on the blog before, and his idea that there is a whole slew of assessments and judgments that occur the split second after you see or talk to someone is relevant. He calls it 'thin-slicing', and at best, thin-slicing in an experienced physician can allow for quick recognition of major illness versus stability. At its worst, however, it can be distracting.
So, because these folks were black, did I somehow make a snap judgment that caused me to order fewer tests? I think so. I think so because when I left to write the note, it was obvious the work up I wanted to do, and I put down those tests I hadn't described to the patient. For whatever reason, though, there was a gap between whatever initial judgments I made without thinking about it and what amounted to good, thorough care. Of course, now there are a maze of confounders--did I know I wanted the tests, but not explain them well because I was less comfortable on some level? Were they less forthcoming with me and therefore I didn't feel like they were acting as sick? Did differences in question style, language, and non-verbal communication make a difference? Not sure; I do know they had two-way mirrors for 'research', so maybe there's a way to find out.
Obama's candidacy for president has made clear that race is an issue in the US. I give us credit as a country for talking about it; there are lots of racists in the world and they often deny that they are much more than we do, as when a Korean student I met denied that there were any Korean homosexuals (I know that's not race but it's similar). The test makes me wonder just how much I'll have to watch myself for hidden bias. Better, I suppose, to see it for what it is and correct it--which is precisely what everyone has to do when their 'thin-slice' is inaccurate.
I remember a class in Mexico where we discussed race, and the class wanted to know why Americans were racist, why they locked the car door when Hispanic youths walked by, why they were so anti-immigration. I found myself on the block for everyone. It was disconcerting, but also enlightening; we have a constant choice to either ignore our own blind spots, or look into them. Hopefully, by doing so, I become a better doctor for everyone, not just the Scandinavian farmers I know how to relate to.