This paper describes two paired studies that demonstrate (1) the existence among medical trainees of pervasive, false beliefs about biological differences between people of different races and (2) that these beliefs may result in unequal treatment. In these studies, medical students and residents were surveyed to assess whether they held false beliefs about racial differences in skin thickness, sensitivity to pain, bone thickness, and brain size, among others. The study then had the participants rate patient’s pain. They found that holding false beliefs about biological differences in race correlated with under-identification of Black patient’s pain.
Many studies support these findings and their impact on patient care. Providers are twice as likely to underestimate their patient’s pain and less likely to initiate life-saving treatment for strokes and myocardial infarction when the patient is Black. Early scientific racism justified slavery through the perceived biological inferiority and higher pain tolerance of Black people. The weight of these beliefs is still with us today.