Story Posted: 2023-11-09

Bioethics seminar addresses unconscious bias

November 6 & 7, 2023 – The W.F. Mitchell Bioethics Seminar was held in Pylypchuk Hall with Sean Polreis, the Teaching and Learning Specialist for Faculty Development at the University of Saskatchewan College Of Medicine, presenting on, “Unconscious Bias in Healthcare.” This year’s seminar was divided into two parts, with 45 people participating in person each day, and 180 more joining via Webex on day one and 132 on day two.

Mr. Polreis began the seminar with an introductory session subtitled, “Self-improvement through awareness.” In this session, he described unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) as “attitudes or stereotypes that are outside our awareness but nonetheless affect our understanding, our interactions, and our decisions” (definition from the Association of American Medical Colleges). Mr. Polreis stressed that unconscious bias occurs without intention or control before we have had a chance to reflect on our thoughts.

Mr. Polreis further explained that most of the decisions we make are made “on autopilot,” with our brains taking an action before we have had a chance to reflect. For example, when someone is driving a car and they see red brake lights on the car in front of them, they will press their own break without consciously thinking about it. “Bias helps us navigate a complex world,” shared Mr. Polreis. “We use our [automatic brain] to make quick decisions, but it can lead us to make decisions that are not fair.” The challenge is to find a moment between our automatic reaction and our action to choose to respond in a different way in situations where our bias is leading us down the wrong path.

The second session, titled “Implications for Healthcare Delivery,” built on the first session to explore how health care is impacted by the biases of healthcare professionals. After providing several impactful examples of implicit bias in healthcare, Mr. Polreis focused on tips for addressing unconscious bias. He encouraged participants to focus on the individual in front of them, rather than categorizing them into groups. “[One way to do that] is through conversation. Open it up; talk to them; find out about them. Listen thoughtfully and humbly. Avoid judgmental language.” He also encouraged participants to use counter stereotyping and to think deliberatively about how they approach patients.

The seminar closed on a quote from Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life.”

The seminars were made possible by the W.F. Mitchell Endowment which is stewarded by the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation. William F. Mitchell was a Saskatoon business man, who recognized the value of ethical reflection both in the business world and in health care. This year, the seminar included lunch as a special thank you for those who participated in person. Sean Polreis has generously provide his slide decks which are available below along with recordings of the presentations.

November 6: Improvement through awareness

Click for PowerPoint slide deck

*Please note: Due to a recording error, the video begins 20 minutes into the presentation. There is also a sound error on the two video clips. Both videos can be found online on YouTube.*

November 7, Implications for healthcare delivery

Click for PowerPoint slide deck


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