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Jun 26

Racial Bias in Treatment of Pain; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


April 07, 2016


Research has long shown disparities in medical treatment based on race. A new study from researchers at the University of Virginia highlights bias in pain assessment and management. 


Black Americans are undertreated for pain, not only relative to white Americans, who are over-treated, but also relative to World Health Organization standards. 


The new study of medical students and residents found that a substantial number of white students and residents held false beliefs about biological differences between races. For instance, many believed black skin is thicker than white, that blacks had less sensitive nerve endings, or that black's blood clots more quickly than white's.. Those biases could affect how they assess and treat patients for pain.


Previous studies have shown that doctors might believe that blacks are more likely than whites to abuse narcotics, but this study shows that incorrect beliefs about differences in biology could also contribute to the under-treatment.


The current study found that half of students and residents held at least one false belief about biological differences. Those who had false beliefs were more likely to underestimate pain levels of blacks compared to whites, and also were less accurate in their treatment recommendations for blacks vs whites. White medical students and residents who did not hold those false beliefs on biology did not show the same bias in treatment.


The study was led by PhD candidate Kelly M. Hoffman, and is published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.