Disparity in Pain Management due to Racial Biases

Earlier in the semester, we listened to a podcast that shed light on the “backfire effect” which is the idea that people who hold deeply rooted opinions are not going to change even when presented facts. Rather, these facts actually make the person feel more confident in themselves because they doubt the source of information. Myth-based beliefs and biases can be stronger than proven ones. Eventually however, when presented with enough mounting evidence, people eventually come around and accept the new fact as true. This last caveat is important as it ultimately means that ignorance can be overshadowed by truth, as it just takes a patient, concerted effort.

Blacks and whites have experienced systematically different treatment by the medical community, as outlined in class and class readings. However, more seemingly benign disparities that were never mentioned in class add up. For example, black Americans have been proven to be under treated for pain relative to whites. While this is not the workings of a certain entity trying to systematically oppress blacks for no reason, it has been systemic nonetheless. This manifests itself in part because physicians might assume that black patients are more likely to abuse the medication, or because they fail to realize that pain medication is necessary.

A study derived from https://news.virginia.edu/content/study-links-disparities-pain-management-racial-bias was conducted at the University of Virginia, and found that the differences in pain medication prescriptions result, in part, from white medical students holding false beliefs about African Americans. In the University study, white medical students were surveyed on whether they believe various beliefs (false) about race and then asked them the pain levels they would associate with different, mock medical scenarios. These false beliefs include that African Americans skin is thicker than whites and that their blood coagulates more quickly. Other false beliefs include that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than whites and that blacks age slower than whites (reference to idiom “black don’t crack”). These false beliefs are not predicated on facts, and they can therefore be overrode. In the University study, at least half the sample of white medical students believed in one of the false beliefs stated above. The study ultimately found that those who did not hold any false beliefs did not show any evidence of discrimination in treatment. This suggests that systemic racism, no matter what domain it is found in, can be eliminated, but only after confronting and proving wrong the false belief that predicates it.

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