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UVA Study Links Disparities In Pain Management To Racial Bias

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Numerous studies have shown that black patients are less likely than their white counterparts to receive pain medicine for the same injury. Now, new research from the University of Virginia suggests a reason why. It found that a substantial number of white medical students and residents believe black people are less sensitive to pain. Now, here to talk about the findings is UVA researcher Kelly Hoffman. Welcome to the program.

KELLY HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: First, explain how you go about even trying to measure something like this. What did this project look like?

HOFFMAN: So we measured white medical students and residents as well as white lay people's beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. So we gave them a survey with items and asked them to rate the extent to which various items are true or untrue.

And we also asked them to report how much pain they thought a black patient and a white patient would feel across two scenarios. And then we asked them to tell us what pain medication they would recommend to treat each of the patient's pain.

CORNISH: And what were some of the true and false beliefs you put in front of these participants that they had to make the call on?

HOFFMAN: So some of the true beliefs we had are things like whites are less susceptible to heart disease than blacks. Blacks are less likely to contract spinal cord diseases. And then some of the false ones and the ones that were endorsed more so were things like blacks' blood coagulates more quickly than white people's blood, their skin is thicker than white people's, they have a stronger immune system than white people, and things like that.

CORNISH: What was the difference in performance between laypeople and medical students, and especially more experienced medical students, given, say, some of those false (laughter) biological beliefs that you were describing?

HOFFMAN: So what we can do is we can look at how many people essentially endorse these things as true versus untrue. And so among white laypersons, about 73 percent of the sample said that at least one of the false items was possibly, probably or definitely true whereas among the medical sample the number was around 50 percent.

CORNISH: But were you surprised, I mean, especially when it came to the medical students? I mean, don't medical schools essentially teach students to be aware of racial biases or at least - I don't know - some biology (laughter) that would counter some of these ideas?

HOFFMAN: Right. So what's striking is that these beliefs seem to operate kind of independently of individual prejudice. So, I mean, it's not the case that these particular medical students and residents are just more racially biased. It's just these are very common beliefs that are very pervasive across our society.

CORNISH: So how does that work?

HOFFMAN: So some people think that black athletes have an extra muscle in their leg and that's why they can jump higher and run faster, these beliefs that somehow the black body is biologically and fundamentally different, it's stronger, it's less impervious to pain and injury...

CORNISH: But do you see why I'm asking? I mean, some people might believe that I would hope a doctor wouldn't.

HOFFMAN: Right. We would hope so too. And so we will need to test whether practicing physicians also hold these beliefs and whether they impact treatment in real medical context, so that's an important question.

CORNISH: Kelly Hoffman is a researcher at UVA. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.