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Black Patients and Pain – How Old Myths Still Hurt Today

Black Patients and Pain – How Old Myths Still Hurt TodayLong-standing myths about black people are pervasive in healthcare. False notions and flat-out racism stemming all the way back to days of slavery still affect the black healthcare experience today. Do black patients have thicker skin? Less nerve endings? Does their blood coagulate more quickly? The answer to these questions is no. And the research has always said no – yet about half of white medical students believe these incredibly outdated ideas to be true.

As recently as 2016, white medical students and trainees are still perpetuating and buying into the idea that black patients are physiologically different than white patients and should be treated as such. This is causing incalculable damage and pain to the black community. In fact, one study showed that trainees who believe that black patients aren’t as sensitive to pain as white patients do not treat black patients’ pain appropriately.

“You’re not listening to me”

Amy Mason-Cooley experienced this lack of pain management firsthand. Mason-Cooley suffers from sickle cell disease, a blood cell disorder that can cause excruciating pain. In too much pain to walk, her husband took her to USA Health University Hospital in Alabama. She told TODAY she spent 24 hours in the hospital, but when her pain still hadn’t subsided, her doctor took her off medications, causing her blood count to drop.

Before it got so low that she would need a transfusion, she had to tell the doctor, “I don’t want you to be in control of my care because you are not listening to me.” Mason-Cooley said he ignored her request, even smirked, and she was not put back on her medication or stabilized until other medical staff intervened. Mason-Cooley also recalls another visit to the hospital where she was left in the ER for 10 hours until she lost consciousness from pain, only to be woken up by a nurse telling her, “This isn’t a pain clinic.” The implication was that she was seeking drugs.

Mason-Cooley has filed a complaint with the hospital, who declined to comment to TODAY.

Racial disparities in pain management

The American Journal of Emergency Medicine published a 2019 study that analyzed data from 14 previous studies and found that black patients are 40% less likely than white patients to receive medication for acute pain, and 34% less likely to be prescribed opioids.

When medical professionals have an implicit bias or outright misinformation, black patients suffer. If a doctor believes a patient is lying about pain, he/she may not provide proper care, increasing the pain and suffering of the patient. Yet another study revealed that African American patients were 22% less likely than white patients to receive any pain medication at all.

The Association of American Medical Colleges has some recommendations for doctors in addressing these inequities:

  • Collect data; if biases exist, the data will show it
  • Identify your own biases; consider taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test
  • Establish educational programs
  • Standardize as much as possible to remove individual discretion
  • Search for objective measures of pain

Racial bias built into our country’s system for hundreds of years will take a long time to dismantle. However, the medical community knows what to do and should be working toward a solution.

The attorneys at McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips, LLC are dedicated to protecting the citizens of South Carolina from injury. If you feel that you or a loved one has experienced racial discrimination in a medical setting and this this unjust behavior has caused harm to you or a loved one, Contact us immediately.  Please  Schedule a free consultation by calling 803-327-7800, or  reach out to us through our contact page.