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Study: Race impacts level of compassion for dying patients

We all know that racism, both overt and subtle, still exists. Nonetheless, the results of a study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management are disturbing.

In the study, 33 doctors interacted with actors portraying dying patients and family members in a hospital setting. Although the doctors knew they were part of a study, they weren't told what researchers were looking at.

They were studying the difference in care received by "patients" when their doctors were of another race than them. Although the doctors were given scripts for the interactions, their behavior was their own. That's where researchers saw differences based on the race of the actors playing the patients and family members.

According to the study's senior author, a key part of doctor-patient communication "involves nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, body positioning and touch." The audio and video recordings of the interactions showed that the black actors received less compassionate care than the white ones. Each doctor was scored based on his or her nonverbal behavior. White doctors scored an average of seven percent lower in their interactions with black patients than white ones.

Since most of the doctors were white, it wasn't clear from the findings whether the same applied when black doctors treated white patients. However, a 2003 study found that patient-doctor communication was best when both were the same race.

So what differences in non-verbal communication did this study find between white doctors and black patients versus white ones? Overall, they stood closer to the bedside of white patients and more frequently touched them in a sympathetic manner. With black patients, they were more likely to speak to them from the doorway of the room while holding something like a binder.

The study's author notes that this difference in the level of perceived compassion may show why real-life black patients are more likely than whites to choose "more intensive treatment at the end of life" than to opt for hospice care that is focused on making patients comfortable in their last days.

Of course, many of us are treated by doctors and other medical professionals of different races, ethnicities and genders than our own and receive quality health care from them. If you believe that you or a loved one are not receiving the necessary care, for whatever reason, you can and should speak up.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Black Hospital Patients Given Cold Shoulder In Disturbing New Study," David Freeman, Jan. 11, 2016

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Breslin and Breslin, PA, Donald A. Caminiti, Esq., was one of six law firms selected by the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey to act as special counsel to represent it in its lawsuit against the tobacco industry to recover Medicaid and other health related costs incurred by the state resulting from tobacco related illnesses.