Are African Americans Being Undertreated For Pain? New Study Reveals Alarming Racial Bias

According to new research, African Americans are subject to undertreatment at hospitals because many medical students associate race with pain tolerance.

The studies claim that African Americans are systematically undertreated for pain compared to white Americans, who are prone to over-prescription and overuse of pain medication. The research also showed that black patients are undertreated due to World Health Organization guidelines.

The research was done by University of Virginia (UVA) students, and it suggests that pain management amongst patients of color could be attributed to bias, in part. The research was published online in the April 4 edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research, which involved medical students and residents, found that some white medical students and residents have false beliefs about the biological differences between black and white people.

Those beliefs include black people’s skin being thicker, and that their blood coagulates quicker than that of white people. Other misconceptions stated in the research are that African Americans age slower than Caucasians and that the nerve endings of black patients are less sensitive than their white counterparts. These beliefs, which are all false, affect how these students and resident doctors assess and treat the pain experienced by African American patients.

Kelly Hoffman, a UVA psychology doctoral candidate who led the study, said that many studies in the past have shown that African Americans are undertreated for pain because physicians also assume that they might abuse the medications.

There was a total of 222 participants in the study, and Kelly Hoffman and her team asked the white medical students and residents to rate on a scale of zero to 10 the pain levels they would associate with two mock medical cases. These mock medical cases were identified as a kidney stone and a leg fracture, both experienced by a Caucasian and an African American patient. The participants were then asked to recommend pain treatments based on the level of pain they thought the patients could be experiencing.

The researchers found out that half of the sample population rated the pain and prescribed treatments based on one of the aforementioned false beliefs. They were more likely to report lower pain ratings for the black vs. the white patient.

As for the white medical students and residents who didn’t endorse false beliefs, they didn’t show the same racial bias as the other half of the sample population. It was also surprising, according to Kelly Hoffman, as the research revealed that only half of the residents knew that whites are less susceptible to heart disease when compared to African American patients.

To determine the accuracy of the research, ten experienced physicians were asked to do the same experiment as the medical school students and residents with the same medical cases and patients. Most of the physicians prescribed a narcotic for both patients.

This is not the first study that discovered racial bias when it comes to prescribing pain treatment.

During a 2000 study done by Emory University, it was found that a hospital emergency department in Atlanta gave 74 percent of white patients painkillers for bone fractures, compared to only 50 percent of African Americans. Another paper last year found that black children with appendicitis were less likely to receive pain medication for the illness.

The latest study by the UVA concluded that the medical school students’ perception of race affecting pain could be biased due to the belief that many black people are more agile and stronger than the whites.

[Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images]