Does Your Doctor Judge You Based on Your Color?

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, July 23, 2009

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While it’s extremely difficult to tell in any given situation how much race–consciously or subconsciously–plays a role in a doctor’s decision making, multiple studies over several decades have found doctors make different decisions for black patients and white patients even when they have the same medical problems and the same insurance.

“It’s absolutely proven through studies that a black man and a white man going to the hospital with the same complaint will be treated differently,” Dr. Neil Calman, a family physician and president of the Institute for Family Health in New York, said. Calman is also Reid’s regular physician.

For example, a 2005 study found African-American cardiac patients were less likely than whites to receive a lifesaving procedure called revascularization, where doctors restore the flow of oxygen to the heart. The study authors at RTI International, a research institute, noted that all of the patients had Medicare, which covers the cost of revascularization.

In a study conducted in 2007, Harvard researchers showed doctors a vignette about a 50-year-old man with chest pain who arrived at the emergency room, where an EKG showed he’d had a heart attack. Sometimes the researchers paired the medical history with a photo of black man and other times with a photo of a white man.

The doctors were significantly more likely to recommend lifesaving drugs when they thought the patient was white than when they thought the patient was black.

Is it racism or something else?

“Racism in health care is a common experience of people of color,” Calman recently wrote on his blog.

But he said disparities in medical care are about much more than race. “[Race] is one very important factor in why people get bad medical care,” he wrote. “So is poor education, poverty and lack of insurance.”

Dr. Cornelius Flowers, a cardiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees there are several reasons for racial disparities in medicine.

“It’s about respect. If a patient is of a low socioeconomic status, a doctor might think, why do I need to go out of my way for this guy? I’ll just do the minimum I have to do and send him on his way,” Flowers says.

He adds that sometimes African-American patients don’t insist on quality care.

“Back in the 1950s and 60s, hospitals in places like Atlanta had a black side and a white side, and the care for blacks was second rate,” he says. “People who remember those days still consider themselves second-class citizens, and a lot of times they allow people to treat them that way.”

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“The lesson learned is, I tell people all the time to seek a doctor who will care about you,” Flowers says. “If you feel like you have a doctor who isn’t genuinely concerned about you, just get another doctor next time.”

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