Addressing implicit bias in the healthcare of older people



This project was part of the Australian Human Rights Institute's 2022 seed funding round, receiving $10,000.


People aged 65+ constitute the fastest growing age group in Australia, yet social and institutional ageism defines this stage of life as one of physical, psychological and social decline. Ageism in healthcare can lead to implicit or unconscious bias, impacting patient relationships and ultimately, decreasing the quality of care given to older people. 

The project will provide preliminary data to understand social and individual perceptions of aging, and how negative perceptions can adversely influence an individual’s health through loss of opportunity and medical treatment. Such information will help lay the foundation of policy development to minimise structural ageism and ultimately, foster communities which include older people as valued and active members. 

This project will include two phases:

Phase 1 will utilise a qualitative study of 60 people aged 50+ years, to understand their self-perceptions towards aging and ongoing active lifestyles, and how this influences their health behaviours. The data from these interviews will be analysed to identify any themes and patterns in perceptions and this information will inform Phase 2. 

Phase 2 will assess the role of education and awareness in identifying, understanding and unlearning the implicit bias of medical professionals, specifically related to ageing/older people. Participants will include medical students across years 1-5 and alumni from UNSW Medicine. Participants will complete two validated surveys measuring ageism -- the Expectations Regarding Aging (ERA) and Ambivalent Ageism Scale (AAS) -- before being presented with the findings from Phase 1. After a week-long period of reflection, participants will be asked to complete the ERA and AAS for a second time. In addition, participants will also be asked to complete a short online survey outlining their overall experience in this study. 

2023 project update

Phase 1 of 2 of this study is now completed, resulting in the submission of our article, ‘Ambrens et al. How perceptions of aging influence physical activity and exercise in older age: Exploring the behaviour of people aged 70+ years engaged in fall prevention activities’ for peer-review. 

One of the key outcomes of this study is to ensure that our future medical professionals develop the skills to examine implicit bias and to build an education program that addresses ageism and implicit bias. We aim to prepare a report for the School of Medicine, outlining the results of this study produced in Phase 2.  

Our research team has also expanded, with the addition of Dr Dania Sturneiks, a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Medicine. She has joined the study as an investigator and has begun to consult on plans to re-develop the curriculum for the Bachelor of Physiotherapy to include content learning focused on ageism and health equity.  

As our project progresses, we are aiming to find a research grant call out that suits the preliminary data collected in Phase 1, under the seed funding grant. We are committed to continue building connections within the hospital setting as we focus on embedding our work within the hospital setting to build a sustainable and validated system of practice that ensures health equity and reliable treatment practices for older people.