Does Your Doctor Have a Racial Bias? Study Suggests False Beliefs Could Affect Black Patient Treatment Recommendations


By pH health care professionals

Originally published Apr 18, 2016

We previously discussed a study published a couple of years ago online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that some medical students’ false beliefs about biological differences between black and white patients may affect how they perceive a patient’s pain.

Since April is National Minority Health Month, let’s revisit this study and take a deeper look at health disparities in the minority community.

Researchers collected survey results from 222 white medical students at the University of Virginia. Sixty-three were first-year students, 72 were second-year students, 59 were third-year students and 28 were residents.

Students were asked to rate the accuracy of 15 mostly false statements (11 false, 4 true) about biological differences between black and white people. They could rate them definitely untrue, probably untrue, possibly untrue, possibly true, probably true or definitely true. The study authors found that about 50 percent of the medical students thought that one of the fake statements was "possibly, probably, or definitely true.”

Some of the statements included that blacks’ skin is thicker than whites’ and that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites’, CBS News reported.

Overall, on average, the medical students said 11.55 percent of the false statements were either possibly true, probably true or definitely true.

Study participants were also asked to read hypothetical medical cases about a black patient and white patient with the same health problems (cases where each had a kidney stone and where each had a leg fracture), rate the  presumed pain of the patients, and provide recommendations.

The students who believed more false statements to be true rated the hypothetical black patient’s pain a half point lower, and they were less accurate in their treatment recommendations 15 percent of the time, the study said.

The researchers also performed this experiment with non-white medical students but did not include the findings in this study.

So what does this mean for patients?

Keep in mind, this is a small study of medical students, and does not necessarily mean your doctor has a racial bias. However, if you are concerned you are not getting appropriate treatment for ANY reason, you may want to get a second opinion.

Unfortunately, this issue goes way beyond pain management, particularly with minority men.

Recently, Doctor Charles Modlin, urologist, kidney transplant surgeon and founder of Minority Men’s Health Center in Cleveland, wrote an op-ed about how minority men, especially black men, die from heart disease 44 percent more often than the population as a whole. He also reports minority male death from different types of cancers is 33 percent higher.

Other diseases and stats from his report:

  • Kidney disease 4 to 6 times greater in minority males than white males
  • Diabetes 80 percent higher
  • Hepatitis C, hypertension, HIV and kidney transplantation also higher in minority men

Modlin says some of this is due to biological and hereditary factors, “[but] many -- far too many -- health disparities are grounded in socio-economic and cultural factors that extend across generations of minority men.”

Why is this happening?

  • Some medical professionals are simply not educated about minority health disparities, and as a result, this may cause a lack of trust between the patient and doctor. Modlin says, “[t]his unfamiliarity exacerbates the problem of medical profession distrust within segments of the African-American community, which influences the reluctance of many men to visit health care providers, undergo routine preventive health screenings and consent to enroll in clinical research trials.”
  • History. Modlin uses the example of the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." and how this impacts black males and their health still today. There was a 40-year experiment to learn more about the impact of untreated syphilis in black men. The majority of the men studied were poor sharecroppers in Alabama. In the early stages of this experiment, treatment for syphilis was discovered but withheld from these men. Modlin says it is historical reasons such as this that may make minority men hesitant and fearful of participating in clinical health trials, which are crucial for medical professionals to learn more about certain diseases and how these diseases impact minorities.
  • Myths. As a kidney transplant surgeon, Modlin says he has seen an ongoing issue among minority men and cancer treatment. He says a minority male patient may be told they have cancer treatable by surgery, but he may refuse surgery because of a false belief that if the cancer is exposed to air via the incision the cancer will spread to other parts of the body. This is not true, but it is a belief that has been passed down for decades, “[a]nd it is by no means the only piece of folklore hindering black men from seeking out and accepting needed treatment,” Modlin says.

All of this combined with a lack of access to quality health care in minority communities may lead to many minority men not getting regular check-ups or the medical care they need.

How Can We Be Proactive About this Issue?

Modlin says if minority males will not come to medical professionals, medical professionals need to come to minority men. The Cleveland Clinic, where Modlin practices, hosts an annual health fair that specifically caters to minority males.

Modlin also founded the Minority Men’s Health Center in Cleveland. “This dedicated center enables year-round, hands-on patient care and research into the biological bases for their health disparities. The center also provides a hub to educate and promote health literacy to minority men,” Modlin says.

Organizations across the country can also apply for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grants funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).    

To learn more about how you can help with minority health care, click here. Our patient advocates can also help with any questions or concerns you may have.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.