MIAMI, Florida–Half of white U.S. medical students harbor false beliefs about the biology of African-American people, and these misconceptions could explain why blacks are routinely under-treated for pain, a new study suggests. The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was based on 222 medical students and first-year doctors, known as residents, at the University of Virginia and elsewhere in the nation. Participants read two mock medical cases about a black and a white patient — experiencing scenarios such as slamming their hand in a car door — and made pain ratings on a scale of one to 10. There also answered a survey about biological differences between blacks and whites, including false statements such as: “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites,’” and “black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than white people’s.” Other false statements related to blacks having stronger immune systems, thicker skin and being “significantly more fertile” than whites. The list given to the subjects also included some true statements, reflecting that blacks have denser stronger bones, are more prone to heart disease and less likely to suffer spinal cord diseases than whites. On average, participants endorsed nearly 12 percent of the false beliefs.
“About 50 percent reported that at least one of the false belief items was possibly, probably, or definitely true,” said the study, led by Kelly Hoffman of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology. “Given this sample (medical students and residents), the percentages for false beliefs are surprisingly high.” Previous research has shown that black patients are less likely than white patients to be given pain medications. And when they do, the amount is often far less than allotted to whites. The study provides further evidence that racial bias may be to blame when it comes to harmful disparities in care. “To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of medical personnel (students and residents with at least some medical training) endorsing such beliefs in modern times,” said the study. It “demonstrates that beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites — beliefs dating back to slavery — are associated with the perception that black people feel less pain than do white people and with inadequate treatment recommendations for black patients’ pain.”