TUESDAY, Sept. 6 (HealthDay News) -- Many first-year medical students in the United States may have an unconscious preference for white and upper social class people, but these biases don't appear to affect patient care, according to the results of a survey at one medical school.

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers analyzed the responses of 202 first-year medical students who took part in a Web-based survey that included the Implicit Association Test (IAT), used to assess unconscious (or "implicit") preferences.

The survey also included direct questions about the students' race and class preference, and eight hypothetical patient assessments, focusing on pain evaluation, informed consent, patient reliability and patient trust.

The IAT results showed that 34 students (17 percent) had no implicit race preference, 140 (69 percent) had a white preference, and 28 (14 percent) had a black preference.

The test also showed that 174 students (86 percent) had an implicit upper-class preference, 22 (11 percent) had no preference, and six (3 percent) had a lower-class preference.

However, there was no link between implicit race or social preferences and the students' performance on the patient assessments, according to the study published in the Sept. 7 medical education theme issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Race and socioeconomic status are associated with health care disparities among patients in the United States, Dr. Adil Haider and colleagues noted in a journal news release. They said that medical school could offer a good opportunity to decrease implicit biases and possibly reduce doctor-related health care disparities, although discussions with students suggest that may not be enough.

"It has been recommended that medical education curricula focus on integrating cross-cultural education to reduce disparities; however, students have noted the existence of a 'hidden curriculum' in which what is taught about bias in the classroom differs starkly from in-hospital training experiences," Haider's team concluded.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about health disparities.