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Want to reduce racial discrimination in health care? Start with history lessons


Most White patients don’t believe racism exists in medicine. Learning about it can change their perspectives and support for policies promoting equality.

© wladimiri1804

health care inequality concept: © wladimiri1804

Learning about past racial discrimination in health care could be a way to reduce it in the future.

The nation has a lengthy history of unequal treatment and poorer health outcomes for Black patients. But up to 67% of White patients say they do not believe racism exists for Black Americans in the health care system, according to a new study.

Accurate history lessons can change perspectives, particularly for White people, according to the researchers.

“There is overwhelming evidence of the existence of racism in health care and the persistence of stereotypes, but with our work, we aim to demonstrate that there could be ways to intervene, reduce discrimination and create more equitable health care outcomes,” study coauthor Kimberly Martin said in a news release. She researched the issue as a doctoral student in social and health psychology and is now a postdoctoral scholar at Yale University.

History lessons

Martin and senior author Kerri Johnson, PhD, professor of social psychology and communication at University of California-Los Angeles, recruited 1,853 white participants for a two-part study.

In the first, about 400 participants learned a lesson in “critical Black history” with photographs and captions about health care injustices from the 1800s to the present time. Half were instructed to view and read the materials, while half were asked “to try to imagine the ‘feelings, thoughts and experiences” of the Black patients who were mistreated.

Regardless of the instruction, participants who reported more perspective-taking were more likely to recognize racism now, the news release said.

Critical, celebratory, control

For the second part, about 1,400 participants were divided into three groups.

The first had a lesson in “critical Black history” about medical injustices, such as experimentation on Black patients to advance research. One example explained the situation of civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer, who in 1961 had her uterus removed by a white doctor without her consent, in what was to be a routine tumor removal, according to the researchers.

Another group had a “celebratory Black history” lesson, with photos and captions honoring achievements of Black Americans in health care. The materials included information about Dr. Patricia Bath, the ophthalmologist who invented laser cataract surgery. A third group saw photos with no critical or celebratory explanations.

The first group reported the most perspective-taking, with participants having greater recognition of individual and systemic racism in health care. They also supported policies promoting equal access to health care for Black patients and educating people about the public health effects of racism.

“The findings have far-reaching impacts toward creating an anti-racist society and a health care system that treats patients more equitably,” Johnson said in the news release.

The study, “You can’t dismantle what you don’t recognize: The effect of learning critical Black history in healthcare on perspective-taking,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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