Survey Finds Racial Bias in White Medical Students

By Pat Anson, Editor

New research has founds signs of racial bias and ignorance about issues involving pain management in a survey of white medical students.

Researchers at the University of Virginia asked 222 medical students and residents a series of hypothetical questions about treating pain in mock medical cases involving white and African-American patients suffering pain from a kidney stone or leg fracture. They were also asked whether statements about biological differences between blacks and whites were true or untrue.

Many of the students and residents were found to hold false beliefs, such as believing that black people's skin is thicker and that their blood coagulates faster than whites. 

Half of those surveyed endorsed at least one false belief; and those who did were more likely to report lower pain ratings for black patients and were less accurate in their treatment recommendations for blacks.

Medical students and residents who did not endorse false racial beliefs did not show the same treatment bias. 

"Many previous studies have shown that black Americans are undertreated for pain compared to white Americans, because physicians might assume black patients might abuse the medications or because they might not recognize the pain of their black patients in the first place." said Kelly Hoffman, a psychology PhD candidate who led the study. "Our findings show that beliefs about black-white differences in biology may contribute to this disparity."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We've known for a long time that there are huge disparities in how blacks and whites are assessed and treated by the medical community," Hoffman said. "Our study provides some insight to what might contribute to this -- false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. These beliefs have been around for a long time in our history.

"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. And these beliefs could be really harmful; this study suggests that they could be contributing to racial disparities.

Previous research has shown that African-Americans are systematically undertreated for pain compared to white Americans, and that blacks are less likely to be prescribed opioid pain medication than whites.

A 2012 study published in The Journal of Pain found that blacks, especially young adults, had significantly more pain and disability whether they lived in lower or higher socioeconomic neighborhoods.