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The Annenberg School for Communication on Sept. 29, 2019. Credit: Zihan Chen

A recent Penn study found that the use of clinician peer networks significantly reduces gender and racial biases in health care.

According to the study — conducted by Damon Centola, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, the department of Sociology, and Penn Engineering — clinician peer networks improved the accuracy of treatment decisions for patients. This research, published in Nature Communications, aims to introduce safer and more equitable health care for women and minorities by removing biases, an issue that has a negative impact worldwide, Penn Today reported.

Researchers divided a sample of 840 clinicians into two groups, each of which watched a video of a patient giving a clinical history and risk factors for heart disease. Half of the clinicians watched a white male actor and half watched a Black female actor as the patient. Without peer networks, clinicians were 49% more likely to send the Black female home and 78% more likely to refer the white male to the emergency department. 

After these initial results, researchers divided the clinicians into an experimental and a control group. The control group watched the video alone with no input from other participants, which did not change the previous findings. Researchers connected the 40 experimental group clinicians with one another and presented them with the opportunity to modify their evaluations after consultation. 

For the experimental group, the clinical accuracy and treatment disparities improved for both the white male and the Black female. Both of the patients received the guideline-recommended care at the same rate. 

“We found that by changing the structure of information-sharing networks among clinicians, we could change doctors’ biased perceptions of their patients’ clinical information,” Centola told Penn Today. “Put simply, doctors tend to think differently in networks than they do when they are alone.”

With the rise of telemedicine, peer networks also provide an opportunity for new information-sharing technologies that support clinical decision-making, Penn Today reported.

“Using network technologies to improve health care is the future of medicine. Our next step is working with hospital systems to implement effective peer-networking programs across the country,” Centola told Penn Today.

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