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The Medical Community Holds Some Horribly False Beliefs About Black Patients, Study Finds

These beliefs lead to less accurate treatments for pain.

| 2 min read

These beliefs lead to less accurate treatments for pain.

Sadly, racism and racial inequality still exist in our 21st-century world, and while we’d all like to think doctors and medical experts would be the ones to understand the realities about any biological differences between races, a new study unearths that this is unfortunately not the case.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have revealed that racial stereotyping is very much alive in the medical community, and because of these horrifying untruths, the study suggests that black Americans are undertreated for pain relief since many medical students believe that black people feel pain differently than white Americans.

“These beliefs have been around for a long time in our history. They were once used to justify slavery and the inhumane treatment of black people in medicine,” lead study author Kelly Hoffman, psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia (UVA), said in a press statement. “What’s so striking is that, today, these beliefs are not necessarily related to individual prejudice. Many people who reject stereotyping and prejudice nonetheless believe in these biological differences.”

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The researchers asked 222 white medical students and residents about the pain thresholds of black patients compared to white patients, and they were also asked about various evidently false biological statements associated with black patients. For instance, “black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s skin,” “black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites,” and even “white people have larger brains than black people.”

The researchers note that people in the general public were also surveyed for this study, and they often held these false beliefs too — troubling, but at least they aren’t the ones treating our medical conditions!

You can see the results of the two studies below — the first was an online sample and the second was a survey among the medical community — and the bold statements are the ones that are false.

Chart from the study

Credit: Hoffman et al./PNAS

The results showed that, sadly, many of these views clearly persist among medical students — first years through third years, and even medical residents who have graduated and actively practice medicine.

Half of the sample endorsed at least one of these false beliefs, and those who endorsed the false beliefs were more likely to report lower pain ratings for black patients and be less accurate in their treatment recommendations.

The fact that half of the study sample held these false beliefs about black patients is a major concern. The medical community, above all, should understand the biology of different races in order to properly treat their patients.

“The good news is that individuals who do not endorse these false beliefs do not show any evidence of racial bias in treatment recommendations,” said Hoffman. “Future work will need to test whether challenging these beliefs could lead to better treatment and outcomes for black patients.”

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