The Impact of Racial Bias in the Medical Field

Held on the third Monday of every January, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is meant to highlight and honor the life of the late Dr. King, whose plight for social equality for African-Americans pushed the Civil Rights Movement into the next era. As MLK Day approached, Florida State’s College of Medicine took it upon themselves to host a week-long event last week, “Racism Awareness Week,” meant to inform on the racial issues Americans face today as pertaining to medicine.

Courtesy: NoleCentral


As of recent, racial bias within the medical community has been in the spotlight after a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) revealed that an alarming percentage of medical students and residents believe in myths surrounding the health of black patients. The report shows that in a group of 100 medical students, residents and doctors, 20% believed that black Americans have a higher pain tolerance than their white counterparts. More alarming, however, is the report of a staggering 42% of medical staff to-be who are under the assumption that blacks are less likely to succumb to spinal cord disease. This can result in a serious gap in the number of Americans that are being underdiagnosed and as a result, undertreated. Yet this fallacy is largely considered to be a result of misinformation by nonblack doctors and medical staff towards their black patients, and not directly tied to a person’s own racist beliefs.

However, there are some reports by other doctors and black patients that do raise concerns both for the racially-biased diagnoses (or rather, lack thereof) and racist medical staff. In a blog run by Harvard Medical School, Dr. Monique Teller writes about a black patient’s experience of being denied pain medication at an emergency room. Despite no previous history of pain medication abuse, she was denied service for her medical condition (the writer omitted what exactly it was, citing patient confidentiality).

Reports such as this one are far from few. Most concerning are the numbers emerging from this study that mention only 35% of minority patients are receiving the treatment they need due to these falsehoods.

Wanting to avoid such occurrences, Florida State’s College of Medicine started their week with a “Privilege Walk” presentation, the purpose of which was to inform to-be doctors on how to prevent under-diagnosing patients of color and how to see past personal bias, as well as dismantle outdated information.

In his own reflections on privilege and wearing the white coat, Dr. Max J. Romano speaks on the inequality personal bias causes to those who most need medical attention. “Failure to confront racism within the medical profession has implications for the patients we serve: infants of color continue to die at higher rates, children of color get less needed care, and adults of color receive poorer quality care than their white counterparts.”

While the disparity between the health of white and black Americans is a cause for concern, it is efforts like that of the College of Medicine’s that continue to push for equality, and as MLK Day comes to a close, it is these efforts that keep Dr. King’s ideas alive.