Many Medical School Students Think Racial Color Affects Pain

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Medical school students learn about human anatomy, illnesses, treatments and such. Presumably, the pictures they see of body parts and systems do not differentiate by race. So, why do so many doctors and medical school students – today, not a century ago – think a patient’s racial color affects their pain felt when injured or how the blood in the wound coagulates?

New research shows that half of white medical school students and the physicians they become are not colorblind when making diagnoses or prescribing treatments and medications (at least at the University of Virginia) in which race should play no part. However, this is not the first study that showed unequal treatment. The new research, which was released April 4 in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy Of Science), adds further evidence that black Americans are systematically treated differently and even undertreated for pain than white Americans.

“For a long time we’ve known there are really large racial disparities in health and health care, in pain management this is really [striking],” commented the study’s lead author Kelly Hoffman, who is a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. The researchers sought to both show the disparity and understand the factors that lead to the uneven medical treatment.

Researchers queried 222 medical school students who are white at the university (including some residents) to review two medical cases and rate the patients’ perceived pain levels based on the data presented. One patient was black and one was white.

The medical school students were then asked to indicate whether or not 15 statements about racial health care differences were true. The statements included falsehoods like “Blacks have stronger immune systems than whites,” “Blacks’ skin is thicker than whites’” and “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than nerve ending of white people.” The list did include some factual difference, such as the reality that black patients have more of a risk of having heart disease or a stroke and contract fewer spinal cord diseases.

Approximately half of the student thought at least one of the false statements was definitely, probably or possibly true. Those people also perceived the black patient’s pain to be lower than those who did not believe wrong information. Those false beliefs clearly could lead to different and possible wrong medical treatment for black patients.

As a control mechanism, the study was done with non-white students and lay people. They presented the 15 points to a group of 106 medical school students who are not white who did not make the same factual errors. Of Additionally, 92 lay people were questioned. However, 73 percent of that group believed at least one fake statement. Again, those who believed falsities tended to rate the black patient’s pain lower than the white patient’s pain.

In their write-up, the authors suggest that perceptions by the medical school students that racial color affects pain and other falsehoods may be biased by the belief by many that black people are better, stronger, more agile athletes. Research has clearly established that racial differences relating to health care so exist, such as the greater rate of diabetes and heart disease in the black community. However, many believe that tendency is due to cultural and economic differences. In most instances, there should not be differing health outcomes and pain treatment between black and white Americans.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

University of Virginia: Study links disparities in pain management to racial bias
PNAS: Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites
ABC News: ‘False Beliefs’ of Med Students May Lead to Racial Bias in Pain Management, Study Says
Los Angeles Times: Does a white doctor understand a black patient’s pain?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 3rd Class Kelly Barnes (Public Domain)

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