Paul R. Lehman, PNAS study shows ethnic biases still exist in treatment and medication for African Americans

February 18, 2019 at 4:02 pm | Posted in African American, American Bigotry, blacks, equality, Ethnicity in America, European American, Medical Aparteid, myths of pain for African Americans, PNAS study, Prejudice, Race in America, whites | Leave a comment
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A young man navigated himself into the hospital emergency room and to the reception desk where he complained of an extremely severe headache. What happened to him after his alerting the reception desk of his condition is not clear, nor is the treatment or lack of treatment he received by the medical staff. The fact that he was not admitted to the hospital was evident because the man was found lying on the sidewalk in front of the emergency room door by the local police who had been called by the hospital staff to remove him. The man’s pain was so severe that he could not speak clearly with the police when they tried to question him. Not being able to communicate with the man, the police drugged him to their vehicle, took him to the local jail where after a few short hours, he was reported to have died.

A pregnant young woman waited for some 30 minutes in the waiting room of her obstetrics office after calling ahead and informing them of her condition—very uncomfortable pain and vaginal bleeding. After she bled through the chair cushion in the reception room, she asked her husband to see if she might be taken to a private area.  The doctor visited briefly with her, commented on her weight, said that her spotting was normal, and sent her home. When the pain continued through the day and evening, she spoke to her mother then called a nurse who asked if she had pain in her back. She replied no, that it was in her butt. The nurse said she was probably suffering from constipation. After numerous confrontations with doctors and nurses she was given an ultrasound that revealed her serious condition—one baby and two tumors. Had the ultrasound not been performed she would have died; she did lose the baby.

These two incidents represent the thousands that have occurred and many that still occur today throughout America. The two main reasons for these occurrences are: the patients are African Americans, and the myths believed by the medical community concerning African Americans and pain. One would think and certainly hope that ethnic myths based on skin color no longer play a role in the treatment of African Americans in today’s world. We would be mistaken in that belief.

A study that focused on these myths was conducted by PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Apr 19; 113(16): 4296–4301.) The study employed the terms black and white assuming that the reader would know their significance. This writer for the sake of clarity, viewed the term black to mean African Americans, and the term white to mean European Americans. The significance of the study was stated as follows:

“The present work examines beliefs associated with racial bias in pain management, a critical health care domain with well-documented racial disparities. Specifically, this work reveals that a substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and demonstrates that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy. It also provides the first evidence that racial bias in pain perception is associated with racial bias in pain treatment recommendations. Taken together, this work provides evidence that false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites continue to shape the way we perceive and treat black people—they are associated with racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment recommendations.”(Italics added)

The myths in the study include: Blacks age more slowly than whites, Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites’,  Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites’, Whites have larger brains than blacks, Whites are less susceptible to heart disease than blacks, Blacks are less likely to contract spinal cord diseases, Whites have a better sense of hearing compared with blacks, Blacks’ skin is thicker than whites’, Blacks have denser, stronger bones than whites, Blacks have a more sensitive sense of smell than whites, Whites have a more efficient respiratory system than blacks, Black couples are significantly more fertile than white couples, Blacks are better at detecting movement than whites, Blacks have stronger immune systems than whites, and are less likely to catch colds.

Most people are generally encouraged to trust people in the medical profession; however, the words of the researchers from this study should give caution to African Americans as well as all people of color in general relative to the medical profession’s continued belief in many of these myths. We tend to believe that people with higher education and in professional occupations are not influenced so much by ethnic bigotry or prejudice. Unfortunately, the results of the PNAS study indicates that for many in the medical profession the biases acquired through their social conditioning are still alive and working. Many doctors do not realize that the myths play a part in their practice because attention is not brought to them. Patients of color need advocates to speak up for them.

As a result of the study, African Americans and other people of color should understand that their health and wellbeing still depends on their ability to receive appropriate treatment without the interference of some mythical belief. In other words, they should always question any procedure or medication that does not seem to address their illness, if possible. The questioning of the medical professional is not to challenge his or her decision, but to gain clarity about what the patient can expect of the treatment or medication.

The inhumane and unethical treatment of African Americans by many in the medical profession is not new, and if one wants to read about the extensive history of that treatment an excellent source is Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present(2006). The fact that many of the myths are still believed today in spite of the DNA information that speaks to no biological differences between Homo sapiens underscore the need for caution relative to the medical profession and their relationship to African Americans and people of color. A new emphasis in the medical profession must be instituted to address this problem or it will continue.

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