A study dated April 4 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that black Americans are undertreated for pain compared to white Americans and the World Health Organisation’s guidelines. This University of Virginia study says this stems from a racial bias.

The researchers found that many white medical students and residents presume a number of false beliefs about black and white people’s biological differences, despite having no individual prejudice. They believe black people’s skin is thicker, among others. Still, the team says that more studies are needed to verify if changing these beliefs would result in improved outcomes.

“Many previous studies have shown that black Americans are undertreated for pain compared to white Americans, because physicians might assume black patients might abuse the medications or because they might not recognise the pain of their black patients in the first place,” adds lead researcher Kelly Hoffman, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at the university. “Our findings show that beliefs about black-white differences in biology may contribute to this disparity.”

black Americans

Doctor injecting a patient. Photo from Pixabay/skeeze

The research team inquired about what 222 white medical students and residents would rate the pain of white and black patients in a scale of 0 to 10 given a mock kidney stone and leg fracture. These participants were also asked about their recommended treatment, as well as their views on how statements of biological differences were true or false like if black people have less sensitive nerve endings than whites, blacks have thicker skin than whites, blacks’ blood coagulates faster, whites have lower chances of suffering stroke and whites are less likely to suffer from heart disease.

Half of the respondents hold at least one false belief. These were the same people that would report lower pain ratings for black patients.

Moreover, their recommended pain treatments for black patients were also less accurate. Those white participants that did not hold these false beliefs did not have this bias.

However, the researchers assert that these findings were not observed by experienced physicians. Most of the 10 physicians studied provided the recommended pain treatment according to the WHO’s guidelines and not out of racial biases.

The researchers point out that non-racist people still hold these false beliefs, suggesting that these are not linked to individual prejudice. Nevertheless, this still worsens racial disparities in healthcare.