Academic Study Shows How Racial Bias May Impact End of Life Care

wg-university-of-pittsburgh-medical-center-4A new study by research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Purdue University found that physician treat dying Black and White patients differently. The researchers conducted an experiment with emergency room physicians and put them in simulations where they had to interact with patients who were dying and their family members.

The results showed that physicians were more likely to stand right next to the White patients’ bedside when telling them the bad news and what treatments were available. Doctors were also more likely to touch White patients sympathetically.

Senior author of the study, Amber Barnato, an associate professor of clinical and translation medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said that “although we found that physicians said the same things to their Black and White patients, communication is not just the spoken word. It also involves nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, body positioning and touch. Poor nonverbal communication – something the physician may not even be aware he or she is doing – could explain why many Black patients perceive discrimination in the health care setting.”

Dr. Barnato went on to say that “body language is a significant tool in building trust – or mistrust. To help Black patients and their families feel welcome and encouraged to be partners in medical decision-making, it is critical that doctors be aware of their verbal and nonverbal communication and any unintentional biases.”

The study, “Differences in Physicians’ Verbal and Nonverbal Communication With Black and White Patients at the End of Life,” appears in the January issue of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. It may be accessed here.

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