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Nadra Kareem Nittle

Do Doctors Need to Know More About Race?

By January 7, 2013

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John M. Hoberman, chair of Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin, has a fascinating new book out about racial bias in medicine. It's called Black & Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism. To say that Hoberman's findings are unsettling would be an understatement. Some of Hoberman's conclusions about racism in medicine are just downright scary. Hoberman found, for example, that black patients routinely do not receive the same treatment options that white patients receive, a discrepancy that has no doubt cost countless blacks their lives. He also found that doctors receive little to no training about race relations in medical school.

"What is conveyed to medical students with regard to the history of medical racism in America is like next to nothing," Hoberman told John L. Hanson Jr., host of KUT Austin radio program "In Black America" during a recent interview. "What is done for medical students to try to prepare them to deal with the racial divide is in my view, and in the published views of experts in the field, entirely inadequate."

And if you think doctors are any better at navigating race than the general public is, think again. According to Hoberman: "Doctors in general have long benefited from a kind of halo effect, the expectation that what is seen as a humane life-saving profession is going to improve the characters and the personal standards and the sensibilities of the people who are responsible for taking care of patients. The bad news is that it doesn't seem to work that way."

He says that doctors aren't more racially enlightened than other groups, meaning that racism inevitably leaks into the standard of care that patients of color receive. The problem is that many people of color remain wary of doctors anyway--and with good reason. From the 1930s to the 1970s about a third of Puerto Rican women endured government-sanctioned sterilizations. During the same period, the U.S. government allowed syphilis to ravage the bodies of black men in Tuskegee, Ala. But Hoberman says that blacks' distrust of the medical establishment didn't begin there. He says it dates back to slavery when African Americans in bondage received substandard care from plantation doctors.

Hoberman's findings underscore the need for more black doctors. Just three percent of U.S. doctors are African American, he says. His findings also underscore that the medical establishment needs to be educated about the history of racism in medicine and about institutional racism generally. If diversity training will help doctors save more lives, there's certainly no excuse for medical schools not to equip physicians with the tools needed to curb and deconstruct their racial biases.




January 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm
(1) Las Tyler says:

This has been going on for many years. Nothing new. That’s why I’m very careful in choosing white physicians.

January 8, 2013 at 1:58 am
(2) Doris says:

I’ve heard of multiple studies that show that doctors give better care to patients based on race, gender, class and other issues. If you’re a rich white man, you’re more likely to be taken seriously if you complain to your doctor about symptoms, but if you’re a poor woman of color, you’re more likely to be told to go home because it’s all in your head.

My husband and I are both Asian, and we both have shovel-shaped incisors, which are common among Asians and Native Americans. When my husband was a kid, his white dentist told him, “You and your sister both have the same shaped teeth.” The dentist had never heard of or encountered shovel-shaped incisors before. It makes me wonder what other biological/medical information might be specific to certain races or ethnicities, that white doctors tend to be unfamiliar with.

January 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm
(3) Reinhold Schlieper says:

I wonder whether wealth and poverty are not also related here. Several years ago, I was told by a nurse that some physicians may seek to prolong a life of a person able to pay although the case is hopeless and that they may let someone die who is without means although s/he may have survived otherwise.

Also, from the 40s to well into the 60s, medical experimentation on inmates was proceeding in this country. Makes you wonder why noone noticed that immorality while charging the WWII enemies for the same transgressions against basic human rights. It’s strange that this culture makes such allowances for wealth while coming down hard on poverty.

January 15, 2013 at 5:24 pm
(4) Veronica says:

We’re HIspanic and my mom once had a doctor ask her if she had diabetes. When she told him “no,” he was surprised and said that he thought that she was diabetic because she’s Hispanic. It’s true that we Hispanics are more likely to get diabetes than most other people, but that doesn’t mean that ALL of us have it. It wasn’t so much racism that my mom faced as was plain ignorance on the doctor’s part.

January 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm
(5) Johan says:

I think we must not forget that talking about racial differences has been politically incorrect at least for the last 4 decades. In my opninion those physical differences (and not juist on the outside) and consequences for treatment, should be part of the curriculum of medical studies. On the other had: a lesser treatment because of race or income is of course unacceptible. Yet the richer people (black or white) can just buy a better treatment. It will be difficult to avoid that.

January 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm
(6) jill says:

I am a fifty year old black woman who is ask if I have any children which is nerve racking since Ive told the person who ask me I never been married several times and when Im asked by a MD if Im on medication they automatically assume Im on birth control and ask me several times how many children do I have knowning fully well on the chart Im single and never been married. I guess they assume I “got to have it” thank you Spike Lee

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