Study Shows Med Students Still Believe These Myths About Black Patients' Pain

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
It's no secret that the medical community treats Black patients differently than white patients, leading to delays in (or an outright lack of) necessary treatment. But new research looking at doctors' beliefs reveals just how deep those problems are — and how far we have to go to correct them.

For the study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Virginia performed two experiments looking at how racial biases might influence pain treatment for Black patients.

For the first experiment, the researchers asked 121 white people the extent to which they believed a few totally false statements about biological racial differences. For instance, many of them reported believing that Black people age more slowly than white people, that Black people have thicker skin than white people, and that Black people's nerve endings are less sensitive than white people's.

But even worse than that was the second experiment, in which the researchers asked 222 white medical students and residents (med school graduates who are training in a specialty) the same questions — and got dishearteningly similar results. The students were no less likely to believe the false statements about biological differences. The researchers also found that those who endorsed more of those false beliefs were more likely to say that a Black patient would feel less pain, which could result in seriously subpar treatment for the Black patients those doctors treat.

"The present work...demonstrates that beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites — beliefs dating back to slavery — are associated with the perception that black people feel less pain than do white people," the study authors write, adding that this translates to "inadequate treatment recommendations for black patients’ pain."

The only good news is that not every med student reported believing these myths. And those who didn't also didn't show any differences in treatment based on the race of their patients. But, come on. It's 2016. We need to be doing way better than this.
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